Can You Lead Without Formal Authority?

Sven Laerbusch

Our organizational context increasingly requires our employees, without formal authority, to achieve results in an agile manner (i.e. to avoid escalations). As an HR organization, we concluded that four key capabilities must be supported in the personal development of our employees: to inspire, steer, coach, and intervene.

Even without formal authority, you need to take responsibility if you want to inspire movements. An ideal strategy is to tell a compelling story that both pushes (“we have a problem”) and pulls (“imagine what is possible”) people into action. At the same time, you need to anticipate potential concerns and address them to mitigate resistance to new movements. Lastly, to be able to inspire others successfully, you need to build yourself as a trustworthy leader.

However, you should also share responsibility with others so they feel a sense of ownership for the initiative. We call this steering, because it requires you to design and navigate a “social” process which considers all necessary stakeholders. Joining this process needs to appeal to the different value propositions of the stakeholders. You must involve stakeholders in the right format (Tell, Sell, Test, Consult or Co-Create) to enhance the initiative through collaboration with people from multiple areas of expertise.

Apply a coaching mindset to help people reach their full potential. Hold back from giving advice. Instead, help people by asking powerful questions. This mindset will also serve to create engaging meetings and workshops. This way, you can facilitate exploring issues as a group instead of relying on one-way conversations. When working together with peers, you will often encounter varying viewpoints and emotions on different issues. Using coaching techniques like the “ladder of inference” will help you solve these problems and advance towards the overall goal.

Despite the best planning of involvement and engagement, conflicts will arise among peers (different priorities, misunderstandings…). Hence, we included the capability to intervene in conflicts. Members of the workplace need to develop a mutual understanding of one another’s conflict behaviors, and be able to consider them appropriately.

We used the framework above to design a training course for colleagues in these informal leadership roles. Each participant selects an initiative/project with their manager which requires leading without formal authority. During the program, participants are introduced to tools for each of the four capabilities (inspire, steer, coach, and intervene). Participants can use these tools for their case and receive feedback from peers and stakeholders. The positive feedback from participants encouraged us to continue our efforts and place an emphasis on “Leading without …” capabilities in the future. What works for you when you are leading without formal authority, and how do you support this as an HR organization?

For more insight on leadership, see Rethink Leader Selection By Letting Employees Choose Them.


Sven Laerbusch

About Sven Laerbusch

Sven Laerbusch is a global HR business partner supporting the finance board area at SAP SE. He brings more than 20 years of experience in personal and organizational development to SAP and facilitates transformations on global level. Currently, Sven focuses on enabling our continuous learning ambition at SAP with his work on an innovative learning architecture and - culture.