All through my career, I’ve heard about the difference between positional and personal leadership. I was told, again and again, that I shouldn’t wait for the first – that is, I shouldn’t be worried about title or positional power – to wield the second. Personal leadership can come from anyone, in any position! You don’t have to be a manager, a supervisor, an executive, to be a leader.
And you know what, that’s all true. You CAN lead from wherever you are. If you’re currently putting off leading the charge on something that you know needs to be done because you’re waiting to have the formal authority, please, take this as your call to action and stop waiting. Some of my favorite jobs and proudest moments were things I had no actual authority to do – I just did them because they needed doing, or stepped into a vacuum of power, and got things done. You can get a lot done with personal influence in place of positional power!
But of course, that isn’t the whole story. The inspirational speeches usually stop at this point – the exhortation to action, the request to forget formal power structures – and there’s so much beyond there. Because you can lead from wherever you are, true – but some “wherevers” are much better places to lead from. Formal authority makes leadership easier – just look at how many people with no actual leadership talent are still being followed, because of their position.
One of the most frustrating parts of being a personal leader, for me, was looking at the limits of “lead from where you are.” At some point, it doesn’t matter how inspired I am, how brave, how willing to step outside my comfort zone – it doesn’t even matter how right my cause is – if what I am leading is knocked down by the first person with actual authority I encounter. What good is leading from where you are, if where you are is blocking you from leading effectively?
Telling your people to “lead from where they are” while effectively keeping them from positions of actual authority is a really fast way to burn out some of your best employees. Leadership is a skill you can grow – like a muscle, the more you flex it, the bigger and stronger it gets. It’s natural for a leader to need a bigger span of authority once they get some practice under their belt. How easy or hard is it for someone to do that in your workplace?
To everyone in positions of formal leadership and authority, I ask you to look around and find the personal leaders in your organization. Find the people who lead from where they are, wherever that might be. These are the people who need to be moved to positions of greater authority. These are the people who will join you or succeed you at the top. Find them, nurture them, get them the information and training they need, help them grow into the leaders your organization will need in the future. Leaders need to lead from where they are, yes, but it’s up to those in charge to put them in the right places for that leadership to matter.
And for those of you stuck trying to lead from underneath structures that are holding you down – perhaps you need to find a new “where you are” to lead from. You might be able to reach up and ask for a hand to get you to a new position – or you might have to find an entirely new organization and come in at a different level to get that. But if you find yourself getting tired of trying to lead because the fight isn’t worth it anymore, please, find another position – the world needs people who care, and if your current spot doesn’t value that in you, someone else will.