how to show leadership even when you’re not the boss

Even if you’re not leading a team, you have opportunities every day at work to show leadership – and acting like a leader is one of the best ways to build your reputation, increase your value, get better projects, and set yourself up for promotion.

How can you demonstrate leadership if you’re not actually leading people? Here’s how – and you probably have the opportunity to do each of these every week, if not every day.

Think about the company’s perspective, not just your own. It’s pretty easy to figure out how a proposed new project, process, or policy will affect you or your team. Part of leadership, though, is stepping back and looking at things from the organization’s perspective – which may be the same, or may overlap in some but not all areas, or might be entirely different. You’ll be able to make far wiser and more useful contributions if you keep the organization’s perspective in mind.

Be inclusive. Good leaders go out of their way to make sure that they’re pulling more people inward, rather than pushing them out. You can do that by helping to make sure everyone’s voice is heard (for example, “Karen, I know you have experience with this – what do you think?”), genuinely listening to people’s ideas even if they’re not the top expert in the room, and even just looping people in on your own (like stopping by a junior colleague’s desk after a meeting to fill her in on points she might find interesting).

Pick your battles. Good leaders are strategic in choosing where to focus their attention. They might see multiple battles they could fight, but they’ll figure out what’s most important and where they can have the most impact, and will focus there. You’ll probably have loads of competing issues that you could take on, from your team’s inefficient project ticking system to the difficulty in getting what you need from Marketing. Figure out where it makes most sense to expand your time and political capital; don’t try to fight every battle at once.

Take responsibility for mistakes. People’s instinct is often to downplay or even try to hide mistakes, but you’ll show far more leadership by being blunt about what happened. For example: “I called this one wrong. I thought X, but it turned out to be Y.” Or: “Last month I argued for moving forward with Z when Bob felt it was a bad idea. Since then, I’ve realized he was right.” This is a powerful move – it takes responsibility, shows that you’re not afraid to call out and learn from your mistakes, and shows you have the confidence to publicly rethink your opinion. It’ll make you look stronger, not weaker.

Banish defensiveness. If you get defensive when your decisions or questioned or you’re given critical feedback, it’s probably harming the way you’re perceived. Strong leaders want to get input and continuously improve how they do things; defensiveness will make you come across as less confident, easily threatened, and harder to work with.

Help other people. Leaders often become known as leaders because they’re so good about spotting ways they can help others in high-impact ways, whether it’s helping with the messaging for a new service or connecting two contacts who will benefit from talking with each other. If you’re generous with your time and assistance, you’ll strengthen your relationships and become known as a valuable resource.

{ 11 comments… read them below }

  1. Jerzy*

    Oh, wait, I know this one! I can show leadership by volunteering under duress from requests from my boss and PR manager, neither of whom actually go to any of these volunteer events themselves!

    1. Nethwen*


      This is the kind of “leadership” I remember being trained to do in college. The other kind was “be popular and talk over everyone else.”

  2. Sunshine Brite*

    I’ve been trying to balance building leadership skills and not taking on too much. Around here when you volunteer for something they tend to turn to you first whenever they need something.

  3. CanadianDot*

    This is one of those things that a former boss of mine kept pushing – Leadership at every level.

    I personally don’t like the label “leader”, but that’s just a thing with me. I know that it’s about your attitude, and the way you deal with situations and people at work, and what you bring to the table. But I hate thinking of myself as “leader”.

  4. Nethwen*

    Publicly admit your mistakes…

    This is what started me loving my then-boyfriend, now husband. He says “I’m sorry” or “I looked into it and you were right” whenever it’s appropriate to the point that I wonder what’s wrong with me that my first instinct is to ignore a mistake and silently go forward with the correction.

    1. Florida*

      I think when we are the one admitting a mistake, sometimes it feels like a weakness. But when we see other people admit their mistakes, we admire it.

      That should give us the clue that other people will admire it when we do it.

  5. voyager1*

    In the end to be promoted to become a manager/decisions maker, someone has to take a chance on you. You can do all things right, have the knowledge and even do all the good recommendations that this article suggests (which are good) but in the end someone has to take a chance on you.

  6. Davidson*

    A good way to think about this is to expanding your leadership capabilities. It’s not necessarily about the project because you can develop your influencing, communication, and decision making skills in a lot of different situations. Building rapport, articulating a vision or strategy, and coaching are other leader-like skills that you can expand.

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