How To Lead Without Even Trying


Leadership is mistakenly portrayed as an exclusively intentional activity.
Most commonly, we think that we need to make a speech to lead. It’s allegedly a
matter of making a deliberate appeal to people to follow us along a particular

Leadership can, however, be shown by example, unintentionally. Every time you
achieve something at work against the odds, work extra hard, propose a better
way of working or simply set an ethical example for others, you might be having
a leadership impact on those around you without knowing it. If you want to be
seen as a leader, you need to understand all the ways in which you are already
showing leadership. If you focus only on your intentional leadership efforts,
you will have a narrow view of leadership.

Compare leading to selling. If you have the sort of personality that makes
you a natural salesperson, you will often sell people on things, say taking a
trip to your most recent vacation spot, without even realizing it, let alone
intending to sell them on this action. Just describing where you spent your
recent holiday in vivid, passionate language has an impact on people even though
you may not intend it. People without this natural gift who want to become
better at selling need to learn and practice sales techniques in a very
conscious way. Similarly, if you want to improve your leadership effectiveness
or change your leadership style, you need to make a deliberate effort to behave

But this is not the whole story. Whether you are in a formal leadership role
or seen as an informal leader, you are already doing all sorts of things that
are having a leadership impact on those around you. If your work is of high
quality, your colleagues will be taking note and some will be trying to follow
your good example. Such unintentional leadership is much more common than is
generally recognized.

We all play to our strengths at work, otherwise we wouldn’t be successful.
Because everyone has strengths that others don’t have, playing to them can have
a leadership impact on those around us. Unfortunately, we have a bad habit of
overlooking our strengths. The fact is that everything we enjoy doing and find
easy to do is indicative of strengths, but precisely because we find them easy,
we discount them. We say, surely anyone can do that! Or, that’s just part of my
job. We shrug our shoulders while others are amazed at what we have done. It
comes naturally to us but is a struggle for others.

If people look up to you at work, you have no doubt shown leadership to them
in a number of ways other than your intentional leadership efforts to show
leadership. This is important because if, like most people, you tend to discount
your strengths, you may be unnecessarily agonizing over what you need to do
consciously to show leadership when you are already doing enough, or at least 80
percent of what others want from you in the way of leadership.

The bottom line is that when you think about improving your leadership
effectiveness, be sure to recognize that you may just need to round off an
already good enough picture. It may not be a matter of starting from scratch. If
you want help in determining how you are showing leadership now, have someone
interview a few of your colleagues and ask them to name two or three things they
are doing differently since working with you. Perhaps someone in your HR
department can gather some feedback for you around what things you do are viewed
by your colleagues as showing leadership to them.

The next question, given that you don’t have to start from scratch, is this:
How can you build on the good things you are already doing? There may be some
common themes across the people interviewed, but keep in mind that leadership is
in the eye of the beholder, so everyone might want something slightly different
from you. Like successful sales people, leaders need to flex their approach to
move different people.

In conclusion, start to develop yourself as leader by determining the minimal
changes you need to make for maximum improvement in your leadership
effectiveness. This is just good strategic thinking.

See for more information on this and
related topics. Mitch McCrimmon’s latest book, Burn! 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes
was published in 2006. He is a business psychologist with over 30 years
experience of leadership assessment and executive coaching.

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