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How to Lead If You Don’t Have a Management Title

leaders at every level logo“I don’t know how to lead.” That was the opening line of a recent email from a frontline contributor seeking coaching support. She’d been dealt this harsh assessment after interviewing for an internal promotion. The perception about her – that she couldn’t lead – had become a career roadblock. She wasn’t being considered for a management role because she wasn’t seen as a leader.

Her frustration is a common one. She couldn’t work out how she was supposed to learn how to lead unless people gave her a chance to lead. She believed that, through her hard work and stellar performance, she'd earned the right to become a manager. Once promoted, she thought, she’d have a chance to prove her leadership abilities. 

That’s not how it works. People don’t automatically become leaders because they got promoted into management roles. In fact, managers who don’t lead are one of the biggest causes of employee disengagement, turnover, and dissatisfaction.

 That’s why I had to agree with this coaching client’s employer. She needed to demonstrate leadership before becoming a manager. For the good of the entire organization, promoting people who’ve already shown up as leaders is a smarter long-term play. 

Since most organizations don’t offer leadership development to frontline contributors (which is a mistake!), it was up to this coaching client to find her own resources and take charge of her own leadership development. 

Learning How to Lead Isn’t the Same as Learning How to Manage

 393 - startLeadership can be learned, demonstrated, and proven in any role at any time. Being a leader does not require a certain title, job level, or authority. That’s why the employer mentioned above was justified in expecting to see demonstrated leadership from the people they selected for management. 

On the contrary, learning to manage is not as easy to do when you don’t yet have the title, authority, or purview of a manager. You can learn the concepts and practice some of the basics. But people won’t (and shouldn’t) respond to you the way they respond to someone with titular authority. 

While managers compel action through authority, leaders influence action through inspiring others. Leaders rally others who willingly follow because they’re interested and personally motivated to join in the effort. They want to vs. they have to. To learn more about the differences between leading and managing, take this free self-assessment. 

Because these are two discrete disciplines, the training for managers isn’t the same as the training for leaders. Unfortunately, they are often confused or lumped together. Let’s break down the differences. 

Management training includes topics like: 

  • Setting job expectations
  • Giving performance feedback
  • Documentation and discipline
  • Conflict resolution
  • Change management
  • Delegating
  • Strategic planning
  • Performance metrics
  • Goal setting
  • Administering company policies 

As you review the list of topics for management training, notice that most are focused on short-term, activities that drive business results, and maintaining the status quo and smooth operations. Since the primary function of a manager is to handle the work that needs to be done (through other people), these are all important skills for managers. Notice, too, that the items on this list do require authority over others. 

Leadership development training includes topics like: 

  • Motivating and inspiring
  • Innovating
  • People development and coaching
  • Problem-solving and decision-making
  • Big-picture thinking
  • Cross-functional collaboration
  • Creating vision
  • Mentoring and role modeling
  • Culture-setting
  • Communicating effectively 

The leadership development training list focuses on long-term, future-oriented, capacity-building activities. These are all people-focused ways of building business security and results. They’re suitable for senior managers, but they shouldn’t be thought of as the exclusive domain of executives. Every one of these activities can also be demonstrated by people in job role, any function, and any stage of development. 

You Can Contribute More from ANY Level If You’re Learning to Lead 

When you know how to lead, you will be more confident and more effective in everything you do. You won’t experience the same frustrations related to efforts that go nowhere. 

When you learn skills and behaviors for leading, you’ll find that it’s easier to engage others and get buy-in for your ideas. You’ll feel that you’re being heard and that your ideas are being considered more. You’ll have a broader perspective that equips you for appealing to a broader audience. You’ll be seen as someone who has “leadership presence” and can get things done. 

This is why making leadership a prerequisite for management is a good idea. It gives you a huge head start as a manager when you don’t have to rely exclusively on the tools and rules that come from authority and power positioning. 

The benefits of learning to lead aren’t yours alone. Your team and organization will also reap the benefits of your leadership development. For example: 

  • Your manager will be confident delegating tasks, projects, and special assignments to you. You benefit by getting additional development opportunities. Your manager benefits by having a reliable resource to turn to. Your organization benefits because your capacity is expanding. 
  • Your team will turn to you for informal leadership that supplements what they receive from management. They’ll appreciate your big-picture perspective and clear communication that helps them get context for changes they don’t fully understand. 
  • Your department will benefit from your clarity in advocating for what’s needed, from the mentoring you do with new employees, and from your ability to solve problems and make everyone’s jobs just a little bit easier. 
  • The people you work closely with will benefit from your example and leadership behaviors. You’ll be turning setbacks into comebacks, keeping others focused on shared goals and possibilities, and unifying efforts in ways that are motivating and uplifting. 
  • Your future direct-reports benefit from your readiness to lead. They won’t have to be the ones who endure your learning curve and sloppy management because you’ll have practiced and acquired leadership skills before becoming a manager. 

You may also enjoy this free, fun, highly interactive workshop called Why You Need Leaders at Every Level – STAT!

How to Lead in the Day-to-Day Tasks of a Frontline Contributor 

Leadership isn’t something to pull out and use in the big, highly visible, high-stakes moments. It’s better used in the routine, mundane, day-to-day tasks you do. In fact, if you practice there, you’ll be better prepared for those high-stakes moments. 

In addition to accessing leadership development resource and training programs, you can practice your leadership every single day. Consider these opportunities and others like them. You can choose to respond with or without leadership. Every time you choose to respond as a leader, you’ll be learning more about yourself as a leader AND demonstrating your capabilities as a leader. 

Core Deliverables

Self-leadership includes taking accountability for what’s needed and expected. Performing beyond what’s expected demonstrates that you’re capable of doing more than your current role entails. As you do your job, you can do it in ways that surpass the usual. This may include: 

  • Making small, incremental improvements to processes or workflow.
  • Asking questions to get clarity and surface underlying issues rather than making assumptions.
  • Capturing lessons learned from errors and from successes to build in future efficiencies.
  • Involving others early and often in the changes (even small ones) that may affect them.
  • Maintaining a positive attitude and outlook rather than participating in gripe sessions that deplete your time and energy. 

Team Meetings

If your team meetings are uninteresting, dreaded, and/or unproductive, consider contributing in new ways. Learn about techniques and tools that improve team meetings and introduce the ones that don’t require you to be the person conducting the meeting. This eBook on Amazon, No More Miserable Meetings, will give you tons of tips for getting started. 

Project Oversight

Look for opportunities to volunteer and take on new responsibilities. Raise your hand. Ask for stretch assignments. If you see a need, offer to meet a need. Pick something that isn’t working, something that needs to be researched, or something that would help the group in some way. Jot down three reasons why tackling this project would help you learn something new and practice leadership skills. Now list five ways this could benefit others – customers, team members, the business overall, etc. When you take this idea to your manager, focus primarily on the benefits to others. 

Task Forces

If you’re tapped for a cross-functional or task-force team of any sort, seize the opportunity to shine. Most people treat these special assignments as a “have to” that’s inconvenient. They do the bare minimums and slow down progress because they’re not “all in.” That means it will be easy to shine here by contrast. Seek first to understand the desired outcomes for the task force, and then look for the places you can make the greatest impact. Do it! 

Critical Incidents

The pressure is on. The stakes are high. You’re under the microscope. What will you do? 

Will you duck and dodge to avoid the risk? Or will you enter the arena and bravely seek the learning opportunities within this challenge? 

Leaders know that challenge is the crucible of leadership. They know that they don’t have to do it alone, but that they do have to go first so it’s not as frightening for others to follow.


Once you get the hang of showing up as a leader in the day-to-day and in the situations you deliberately seek out, leadership behaviors will become second nature for you. That’s the point! Keep it going because leadership development is a never-ending quest.