All through my career, I’ve heard about the difference between positional and personal leadership. I heard, again and again, that I shouldn’t wait for the first to wield the second. That is, I shouldn’t worry about title or positional power. Personal leadership can come from anyone, in any position! You don’t have to be a manager, a supervisor, an executive or any fancy title to be a leader.
And you know what, that’s all true. You CAN lead from wherever you are. And listen up if you’re putting off leading the charge on something that you know needs to happen because you’re waiting to have the formal authority. Please take this article as your call to action and stop waiting. Some of my favorite jobs and proudest moments came from doing things I had no actual authority to do. I just did them because they needed doing, or stepped into a vacuum of power, and got things done. You can get a lot done with personal influence in place of positional power!
What’s the catch?
But of course, that isn’t the whole story. The inspirational speeches usually stop at this point, with the call to action and the request to forget formal power structures. But there’s so much beyond there.
Because you can lead from wherever you are, true – but some “wherevers” are much better places than others. Formal authority makes leadership easier. Just look at how many people with no actual leadership talent still get followed, because of their position.
For me, one of the most frustrating parts of being a personal leader was the limits of “lead from where you are.” At some point, no matter how inspired or brave or willing to step outside my comfort zone I am – no matter how right my cause is – it doesn’t matter. If anything I lead is knocked down by the first person with actual authority I encounter, it limits my ability to lead. What good is leading from where you are, if where you are is blocking you from leading effectively?
Telling your people to “lead from where they are” while effectively keeping them from positions of actual authority is a fast way to burn out some of your best employees. Leadership is a skill you can grow, like a muscle; the more you flex it, the bigger and stronger it gets. A leader needs a bigger span of authority once they get some practice under their belt. How easy or hard is it for someone to do that in your workplace?
Making leadership easier
To everyone in positions of formal leadership and authority, I ask you this: Look around and find the personal leaders in your organization. Find the people who lead from where they are, wherever that might be. These are the people who need to keep moving into positions of greater authority. These are the people who will join you or succeed you at the top. Find them, nurture them, and get them the information and training they need. Help them grow into the leaders your organization will need in the future. Leaders need to lead from where they are, yes. But it’s up to those in charge to put them in the right places for that leadership to make the maximum impact.
And for those of you stuck trying to lead from underneath structures that are holding you back, perhaps you need to find a new “where you are” to lead from. You might be able to reach up and ask for a hand to get you to a new position. Or, you might have to find an entirely new organization and come in at a different level to get that. But if you find yourself getting tired of trying to lead because the fight isn’t worth it anymore, please find another position. The world needs people who care, and if your current spot doesn’t value that in you, someone else will.
How do you help leaders find the right position? Tell me in the comments!
Melissa “Mel” Kepler is a Training Consultant at LMI and a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach(TM). Prior to LMI, she did marketing and communications at ODNI for Guidehouse. She also worked in government for over 13 years in a variety of positions, including in the White House Situation Room, as a staff officer, an intelligence analyst, a tradecraft specialist, and an HR professional. She founded the NGA Parents Network during her time at that agency. In her spare time, Mel enjoys drinking a truly inadvisable amount of coffee, laughing at her children, and plotting with her friends.