What Does Leadership Look Like When You Are Not in a Defined Role?

Unfortunately, there seems to be too much emphasis today on the role of leadership instead of the opportunity of leadership. What do I mean be that? Simply that leadership can be so closely connected with a position or title that those not in a position can feel as if their influence is somehow mitigated.

So today I want to answer an important question: what does leadership look like when you are not in a defined role?

How you are defining leadership is key

I believe much of the confusion today about this topic lies in how the word leadership is defined.

Too many times leadership is viewed primarily as “what I do” when in reality it should be viewed more as “who I am.” And there can be a sizable dichotomy between the two. 

Leadership as empowerment

In my former days of academia, my most recent position was serving as the Vice President of Academics. Yes, it was a title, and yes, there was authority granted with it. And I enjoyed the role of being able to create change where changed was needed.

But in reality, my view of leadership was not just held to my position because I had a title in the university. My expectations for leadership extended to those who were faculty, whose role was to step into a classroom and create change and develop new thought.

The president whom I served under was both a friend and a mentor to me. I heard him say and model frequently, “Empower your people.”

And so I learned how to grow in that skill set of my life. And my expectation – my communicated expectation – was that my faculty would create movements in their classroom through new thought processes and action that would create change not only in the classroom but outside the walls as well.

In other words, I wanted them to embrace that they were as much a leader as I was, just in a different context, but accomplishing the same mission.

Perhaps you are not in a defined position of leadership today. And perhaps you are questioning how you can lead in your non-defined role or you are confused in how you are supposed to lead when you are not given a position or a title.

As I stated earlier, your leadership is really more about how you define a “leader” and not the title that is given to you. In my 27 years of being in the workplace, I have moved through various opportunities and here is how I have come to view leadership.

Leadership as a mindset

Leadership is not a position or title as much as it is a mindset. It is a mindset that in every piece of work there is an opportunity – an opportunity to influence, shape, and create change. You do not necessarily have to have given authority to create change. In fact, for those that believe the Gospel, the Gospel affords me the opportunity to not have to promote myself, my actions, my decisions, or my agenda.

And when the ego or personal agenda gets set aside, movements take place, paradigms are shifted, a life is reproduced.

I teach for an online Organizational Leadership degree for Pilgrimage Educational Resources. One reason I enjoy it so much is that it is a 1-1 prof to student ratio and so I really get to dig deep into these student’s lives and help them match their organizational leadership courses to what is going on within the context and framework of their lives. Fun stuff.

One of my students was in a position within his staff development team and questioned the type of influence he could have within his company. After all, he did not have the title to create sweeping change. He really desired to use his org leadership courses within his setting at work. I challenged him in his role that his ability to create change had very little to do with the title on his job description and more about what he chose to do with the opportunities in front of him.

And so he did just that. And this student is influencing those above him, those around him, and those below him. John Maxwell calls this “360 degree leadership.” This student has become my poster child for this Org Leadership Program. He is realizing there is much influence even when a defined role of leadership may not be there.

So what does leadership look like (or the leader look like) when you are not in a defined role? Here are four characteristics that I have seen in my own life that give you a leadership platform without an accompanying title:

You take initiative

In my opinion, too much of leadership is equated with a position. If you view a leader as who you are and not just what you do, then take the initiative and show drive and ambition in what you do. 

Listen for needs. Watch for what is lacking. See where the holes are in the bigger picture. Then…do it without it having to be assigned to you.

You do not need a defined role to show enthusiasm or resourcefulness.

You understand and carry out the mission

Do you understand the mission of where you work? Why your entity exists? What is the proverbial bulls-eye? A leader knows why his or her function exists and what it contributes to the organization, school, church, or business. 

Ask questions. Understand the mission and vision and then seek to understand your mission and vision within the larger context.

You do not need a defined role to carry out the mission.

You look around to make the good even better

Those with leadership titles can often be too removed from the “boots on the ground work” that they can become distant or disconnected. Look around. What one thing could you do to make what is good, better? This student of mine looked around and created an entire personal profile process so that they could better serve their customers.

Those with the leadership title took note. He also saw that his area was lacking a strategic plan and saw the opportunity to create that strategic plan so that their “good” was now “better.” Trust me, those with the leadership title are noticing and this student has now been promoted to a manager position within his staff development area.

You do not need a defined position to make the good to be better.

You serve

Jesus was quite an amazing leader. His oft paradoxical approach to influence was often disdained by his own disciples. 

But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Matthew 20:25-28)

Watch our sports or entertainment industries and there is ample opportunity to view many who have been given a great platform and then use it to serve and promote themselves. But find one who serves those around them, truly serves, and it is quite an anomaly.

What are you doing right now to serve those with whom you work? Are you serving to their success? What are you doing to serve those with the defined title? Are you serving for their clarity?

You do not need a defined position to serve others.

And in conclusion

There are certainly more than these four listed but they are a start to hopefully generate some new thinking. A defined role of leadership is a sobering thing. And it is indeed weighty. But my no means does it necessitate a view that there are minimal leadership opportunities to be relished or embraced.

If you view leadership as primarily a bestowed title, you are in danger of creating far fewer ripples than you would otherwise be able to.

Remember – authentic, life-changing, paradigm-shifting leadership is more about who you are than what you do, or for that matter, how your role is defined.

Watch and listen. There are more opportunities than you might expect.

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4 thoughts on “What Does Leadership Look Like When You Are Not in a Defined Role?

  1. Thanks for this, Antone! You are doing this for us at RH, and inspiring and guiding me in doing this for others within my ministry area! To God be the Glory!

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