10 Ways to Be a Leader—Even When You Aren’t in Charge

UPDATED: July 19, 2021
PUBLISHED: May 1, 2015

Do you think of a leader as someone else with a more important title or more experience? Think again. True leaders have more than impressive job descriptions and company anniversaries. They have influence and contribute to something bigger, not just to the work but also to the team.

Candace joined my team a few years ago with big enthusiasm and a fresh perspective. She had recommendations on new technology and ideas to improve communication with each other and our clients. Her suggestions were always aimed at making us all better, not just making herself look good. Candace was only a few years out of college and yet she was most definitely a leader—not because of her title or experience, but because of how she showed up.

5 Days to a new you – free guide

Success 5 Days to a New You Goal Setting

You can show up like a leader, too. And when you do, the rest of your career will take care of itself. Here are 10 behaviors that can help make you a leader:

1. Speak up.

Leaders, regardless of title, know their role—to share and be part of the conversation. They aren’t content to be bystanders. Decide upfront in any meeting or discussion that you have a role to play and participate. Think about how you can contribute, not if you’ll look good.

2. Have ideas to make things better.

Leaders contribute to the greater good. Bring ideas to help make your work, team and organization better. And good ideas come from being informed and learning about much more than just your daily work.

3. Stop talking about other people.

Nothing makes you look smaller faster than filling your conversations with everyone else’s weaknesses. I used to work with someone with a nonstop commentary on how everyone else was annoying, frustrating, uninformed or clueless, and so on. Most people who spend their energy in this way are trying to deflect from their own lack of confidence. It’s hard to have influence if criticism is your currency.

4. Show your brand of enthusiasm.

This doesn’t mean you have to become a cheerleader or be someone you aren’t. Enthusiasm means confidence in your ideas, a positive outlook and valuing others. No one will show more enthusiasm for your ideas than you do.

5. Power up others’ ideas.

When someone else gives a good idea, offer validation and expand on it. As an example, if your co-worker has a great recommendation for a new way of connecting with customers, then recommend how to get started with an experiment. 

6. Constantly improve how you work.

Always look for ways you can do your work better. Share ideas for even small improvements. Keep looking for how to increase your contribution—even if no one is asking you to do it.

7. Quit being a professional critic.

Early in my career, I had a respected boss tell me that “being a critic isn’t hard and that no one earns respect from doing the easy lifting.” It’s not difficult to point out what’s wrong. Leaders have recommendations and answers.

8. Solve problems rather than self-promote.

Keep your eye on the problem you want to solve or an opportunity to make your work or team better. Recommendations intended to make yourself look good or get promoted are pretty easy to spot.

9. Give credit to others.

Appreciate others’ contributions. Openly thank people for a great recommendation that worked. Congratulate others for the success of their new project. This shows not only self-confidence, but it proves that you are more interested in the success of the team than just your own.

10. Promote yourself.

Think as if you had the job that you want in the future. Know the issues you’d have to consider if you were in charge. This outlook helps you broaden your perspective and continue to grow.

Related: My Top 10: The Best Career Advice I’ve Received

Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times,NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at PattiBJohnson.com.