Leadership Without Management

leadership Jan 20, 2018

Many famous statements differentiate between a manager and a leader. While the reality is never just black and white, most quotes are designed to show these as two different elements. Quoting Warren Bennis: “The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.” and “The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.”

John Kotter, Leadership Professor at Harvard University, described leadership as “aligning people to the vision, that means buy-in and communication, motivation and inspiration” while “Management is a set of processes that keep an organisation functioning”. The winning balance between “Managers handle processes” and “Leaders inspire people” is related to concrete situational requirements. The same company might need an innovative leader at their helm at one time and an operating manager in another circumstance.

Over the last couple of years, many companies moved to lean structures with less hierarchies and reduced number of managers. Senior individual contributors are requested to take leadership without carrying a management title or even a team lead role. How to move there without formal structure and education?

Here are three typical types of leaders without being official people managers (beyond project managers, change managers, external consultants etc.):

  • Well-respected seniors are known in their field and act wisely in a genuine interest to help others. Often this mindset comes with longer tenure time either with the same employer or as a functional expert joining from other companies where this individual achieved a trusted advisor role.
  • Large multinationals with their matrix organisations often employ regional managers for concrete categories or go to market areas beyond the regular reporting line. These enhanced responsibilities are more challenging to motivate the team without being their direct boss. These “dotted line” roles need balanced visionary and participative styles to succeed in the sandwich between country teams and senior level.
  • Startup companies don’t use hierarchical models, all employees are hired to live an entrepreneurial spirit leading with inspiration. The fast-growing number of employees shares the same ideas and develop leadership behaviour. This represents an ideal chance for individual contributors to step up to a functional leadership role over time.


Those functional leader types might not receive formal management training from their employers despite being asked to lead by example. Choosing candidates for these critical roles is a challenging task for top management as it doesn’t follow typical hiring procedures and job descriptions.

Here are five practical ways to lead without management:

1. Creating a positive impact

Experts in their roles treat others with respect in an open and honest behaviour with a genuine interest to help beyond their roles. They pursue many chances to spread good vibes across an organisation by sharing success stories to their teams and beyond. Examples are conducting internal Lunch & Learn about topics of greater interest and volunteering activities without seeking personal benefits.

2. Gaining knowledge and continual development

Individuals in this group are often driven by the changes in their industry and drive their own continual personal development. Typical examples can be found in the ICT sector with Artificial Intelligence or in the Finance sector with the upcoming Blockchain revolution. These contributors strive for excellence at all times and can ignite passion for younger employees in more generic functions on this journey.

3. Becoming an authority in the field

External recognition for their own work motivates team members to learn and contribute. By contributing to conferences as keynote speakers or authoring for specialised publications, individuals can become well-recognised trusted advisors within their industry. Especially in the age of social media, other team members can be inspired to find their own voice beyond their regular work.

4. Acting in the best interest of clients and stakeholders

Subject matter experts are well connected in their respective industry and build a professional network over years. They act with highest integrity and master the engagement with stakeholders on the base of mutual trust and respect. As problem solvers they serve customers with highest possible standards. Often staying longer in the company than top management, those individuals lead others with a “can do” attitude supporting the organisation’s values and reputation.

5. Mentoring the next generation

Sharing the skills and experience to graduates and younger colleagues is a very rewarding process for both sides. The mentor receives satisfaction by contributing to the mentee’s personal development. Younger employees provide a different perspective and help to develop a strong business network. For employers without a mentoring program, associations like the Institute of Managers and Leaders (IML) can fill this gap and add an external view.


Leadership should not be confined to upper management and those with a people manager role. Successful collective leadership practiced by individual contributors should be formally recognised and empowered. Organisations should provide them with a training platform that focuses on leading people without management functions. This leads to stronger collaboration within the teams, a higher satisfaction level and longer retention of the overall organisation.


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