Career Advice

How to Be a Leader at Work—When You’re Not the Boss

Architect presenting project to a group of managers

You’re not the boss. You know that. But guess what? That doesn’t mean you can’t be a leader—even to your boss. Here’s the thing: “your boss wants to see you act as a leader,” millennial career expert Jill Jacinto says. And just one (very important) reason why is because “your boss wants to know you have what it takes to manage a project or team before he or she considers you for a promotion,” Jacinto explains.

Or, as Brooks Harper, career speaker and author of Why Should We Hire You, points out, “it’s important to remember that every day is an interview. Every day you are interviewing for your next merit increase or possible promotion. Employing your leadership skills in the right manner—from a subordinate position—benefits the entire team, lessens your boss’ burden and shows you’re ready for the next step.”

That all makes sense. But if you’re still scared to be, well, “bossy” to your manager, we also understand. In that case, there’s even more good news: You can effectively lead in your office without stepping on your boss’ toes, our experts say. Here’s how.

1. Think ahead.

Leaders are proactive, not reactive. Taken in a work context, “great leaders make a plan well before their work is due,” says Jacinto. So if you want to lead at work, you can “motivate yourself to think beyond your current project,” she says. For example, you can ask: “What will the client need when this quarter is finished?” Jacinto says. Them “set new goals, come up with progressive ideas, do extensive research,” or whatever you need to do to stay ahead of the curve—and on your boss’ good radar.

2. Be your boss’ right-hand man or woman.

This isn’t acting as an assistant when you’re three steps above that title. (And it’s definitely not about being a kiss-up.) Instead, this means you should learn from your boss by observing by his or her side. “Understand how they operate and what they need in different situations,” advises Jacinto. Why? “You will always be prepared if you are able to study their professional behavior,” she explains. “And being able to provide examples or answers to their questions will be a great win for you.” 

3. Be an effective communicator.

Good leaders know how to talk, and more importantly, what to say. Harper suggests you hone your communication skills with your boss—letting him or her know what you are doing, how you’re getting it accomplished, and why you’re spending your time on this project— you’ll not only show your higher-up the respect he or she deserved, but “you’ll ensure you aren’t usurping authority,” he says.

4. Do it now and ask for forgiveness later.

On the flip side of that coin, a leader doesn’t always ask for permission. So while this piece of advice is a little risky, it can pay off big time, if you take it the right way. The right way, of course, to move forward without your boss’ permission is “when you have a great opportunity and no time to run it by your boss,” says Jacinto. Examples of those great opportunities include sending a client or vendor a thank you note, incorporating A/B testing in emails, or creating new engagement on social media channels, Jacinto says. In these cases, “test the waters and put your plan into motion before getting a green light from your manager,” she says. When it works, your boss will be glad you took the initiative and may give you more future responsibility.

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