Assuming Command: Taking the Lead When You’re Not the Leader

Lead, follow, or get the heck out of the way.—Traditional American saying, source unknown.

Assuming Command: Taking the Lead When You’re Not the Leader by Laura Stack #productivityIn an enlightened workplace, one of the most important aspects of taking initiative is adopting the thoughts and actions of a leader. A decent executive, especially one who cares about succession planning, will ask or encourage different people under his or her authority to take the lead in meetings, specific projects, and certain types of tasks. After all, most of us learn best by doing. These leadership opportunities may be explicit, in that he or she will deliberately give you the opportunity to lead. Or, they may be tacit, where the leader expects someone to step up and do the job without being asked, even if it’s something as small as making a call to ensure a client got a package on time.

Delegating such leadership opportunities (or allowing them to evolve) becomes particularly important when the leader heads a large team. As I’ve pointed out before, smaller teams tend to function faster and more efficiently than larger ones, because they involve fewer decision and communication points. Business success has become all about speed, flexibility, and agility.

Stepping Up 

Business hierarchies continue to flatten, a tendency now more than a decade old. Management and workers are now closer than ever before when it comes to duties and responsibilities. Bright people of all levels not only can contribute to the positive functioning of a team, they must (click to tweet this). This means you. Don’t keep your head down or hide in the back of the conference room, no matter how introverted you feel. Modern leaders often choose workers specifically for their niche specialties, and everyone needs to hear from you in order to maximize team productivity.

Let’s take a look at some of the characteristics that can make anyone a good leader. Among other things, they:

Are good followers. They absorb leadership lessons from those they work with. Think about the behavior you respect in a good leader, and remember what they valued in a follower. Put what you’ve learned into play on both ends, so you can draw top-notch productivity out of your fellow workers.

Maintain good relationships with their teammates. If your teammates don’t know you well or understand how you think, they won’t let you just step in and assume command unless they’re desperate. Get to know your teammates one-on-one, so you can better know where everyone stands and how you can all work together best. The better connected you are, the more likely you’ll find ways to solve your problems. Determine how your skillsets fit with those of your teammates, leveraging your KSAs and experience to achieve your team goals. Include the entire group; you want a well-oiled productivity machine, not a broken one, and missing parts will surely break it. 

Are unafraid to speak up. Provide the input the organization hired you for, whether the nominal leader asks for it or not. It may change the whole complexion of the situation, or indicate a better solution. 

Understand the need for creative conflict. Minor disagreement fosters creativity and performance. Brainstorming, whether together or individually, creates multiple options you can work from to arrive at the best hybrid decisions. Realize that other people’s ideas may prove as valuable as your own, especially if merged with yours to make something better. Manage conflict, rather than completely avoiding it.

Know when to yield.  Sometimes it’s best to step away gracefully, then back someone else’s idea. You can’t always be right, so don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong.

Communicate effectively.  It doesn’t matter if you have the finest idea in the world if you can’t get it across to other people. Communicate simply and firmly, in a way everyone can understand, without dominating the entire discussion. Listen well, too; someone else may have a better idea.

Do their jobs well. Fulfill your commitments to the team, and once the team agrees on something, back the decision fully—even if you previously advised against it. The best internal leaders collaborate well with others, making sure they produce the output other people need from them quickly.

Think systematically. Study the situation and your resources, applying what you’ve learned not just from your education, but also from your experience. Determine what you need, then help the team set goals. Obtain any resources you may require before moving forward to fulfill your team’s objectives.

Deliver more than the job description requires. Go above and beyond for your team. This gets the job done quicker, and people will take notice.

Helpful Initiative 

Some leaders pay lip service to initiative, saying they want it when they really just want you to shut up and do exactly what they tell you. You’ve probably experienced this a few times yourself, and I think it’s one of the biggest reasons people don’t take initiative when they should. But given the mood of the times, you’re no longer in a position where you can afford not to take the initiative when offered the opportunity.

Now that most businesses have emphasized the need for speed, agility, and on-the-spot execution, you have to put the money where your mouth is and accept the need for initiative. Take the chance and step up to the plate, if you think doing so genuinely benefits the team and organization; otherwise, the carpe diem crowd will leave you choking on their dust.

© 2015 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, a.k.a. The Productivity Pro®, helps professionals achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. For nearly 25 years, her keynote speeches and workshops have helped professionals and leaders boost personal and team productivity, increase results, and save time at work. Laura is the author of seven books by large publishers. Her newest book, Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time, hits bookstores in January. Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and USA Today. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.



  1. Brenna Yaekle says:

    This is so right on target! Both for managers and team members. It is a prescription for success that we all can take periodically. Thank you for sharing and congratulations on your CPAE award! Well deserved!

  2. Thank you. I’ve been in the position multiple time where I just know what the right choices and decisions are but couldn’t take the lead or was afraid to. Now I know how to steer things around for the better.

    For the team and it’s people!!