Updated: Aug 7, 2021
Titles and positions do not make you a leader and having neither doesn't mean you aren't. Ever since I was a child it was evident that I had leadership skills. I clearly remember winning awards for outstanding achievements in certain classes, being asked to be the representative speaker on behalf of my school at events like prize giving (award) ceremonies, giving thank you speeches on school outings, etc.
At church I was asked to become a substitute Sunday school teacher, filling in when the regular teachers were absent. I represented my church in many competitions and areas of public speaking as well. I am very happy for the mentors that I had in my life at that early age that encouraged and motivated me to do those things. Unbeknownst to me, they were preparing me for my life.
Those public speaking assignments equipped me for the corporate world where I was required to do regular presentations to executives and senior management and provide occasional training to staff. They also set the stage for the public and inspirational speaking part of my consulting business.
Years ago I worked in a company where one of the first things I noticed was the very negative organizational culture. Interacting with my teammates and other staff quickly clued me into why the environment was the way it is. The majority of the employees had been working there for more than thirty years. For some, this is the only job they'd ever had.
Of course, this meant the management style was outdated, meaning managers had been promoted for years of service instead of competencies, knowledge, and experience. An outfall of this is that it was very difficult to teach some of these people to do things differently. Management ruled by power and intimidation and provided very little leadership to staff. They talked down to their staff and your title in the organization determined how you were treated. It resulted in an extremely demotivated staff with low morale, most of whom disliked their managers intensely and trusted them even less.
Having never worked in such an environment before, it was a culture shock for me. My first week there I began to compliment my other teammates and let them know I appreciate all the effort they put in to making me feel comfortable. I went to lunch with a different one each day to become better acquainted with them. I learned a lot from these bonding sessions, enough to know that they had very little respect for our manager and that hardly anyone in the organization liked her. I realized I had my work cut out for me.
I also had a bonding lunch with my manager so I could get her side of the story. What I gathered was that she was very out of touch with her staff and had no idea what their professional aspirations were. She knew very little about them as individuals and treated them like children. I began to interact with people from other teams and found out that they shared similar sentiments toward their managers as my teammates.
How I Became The Informal Leader
I set aside some time each day to meet someone new. I visited people’s desks and introduced myself to them. Conversations were tentative at first but as I opened up to them and shared stories of my life and professional experiences, people began to feel comfortable with me and the conversations began to take on a life of their own.
By my fourth week, the supervisor for the administrative staff on my team quit suddenly. She had had enough and wanted out. As soon as she left, her staff came to my desk and begged me to take her position. This said to me that I had gained their trust and respect in that short time. It was too early in the game for me to consider switching positions, but I reassured them that I was always available if they had questions or required help, or just wanted to talk.
Soon, other staff outside our team began to stop by my desk at various times of the day to ask questions or just to chat. I began to make suggestions on a few things to some managers, based on conversations that I had with their staff. These suggestions were always made as if they were my viewpoint. I usually prefaced my sentences with, “I notice that …”.
A wonderful thing happened as our manager started praising my teammates for a job well done. According to them, that had never happened before. People were beginning to be more open with each other and had become more comfortable interacting with each other. The atmosphere changed from one of constant tension to one that was more accepting.
Leadership gurus, Robbins and Langton, expressed that a leader is a “status quo challenger” who exemplified the following qualities:
· Acts to bring about change in others congruent with long term objectives
· Asks what and why to change standard practice
· Uses transformation influence: induces a change in values, attitudes, and behaviour using personal examples and expertise.
Don't be lulled into thinking I behaved perfectly all the time. Some days I just didn’t feel like dealing with the challenges and complaints and responded in ways that could be described as short and abrupt. Leaders, formal or informal, are also human and need grace like anyone else.