Book Review: How to Lead When You're Not in Charge
I checked out How To Lead When You're Not In Charge from the library because I saw someone recommend it. It's very easy to read, and has some really good advice; but it was a bit of a struggle for me, personally.
The author is a pastor, and involved with church and ministry activities. He often uses these as examples, and also speaks a lot about (Christian) religion and God's plans in the context of personal struggles and leadership development. I am an agnostic, and as such I found many of these paragraphs distracting or outright frustrating. I'm glad the author can rely on his faith, but the way he incorporated this with the theme of his book was very off-putting for me. The religious material is presented early, and often, in the book and I almost stopped reading. I'm glad I stuck through it, though, as there really is a lot of useful information in this book.
The book makes the clear distinction between authority and leadership. This is a common refrain from many leadership texts, and this was nothing new. Leaders don't need authority to effect change. But learning how to lead is not always easy. The author suggests three simple steps to increasing your leadership:
- Model Followership: if you want to be a good leader, you should learn how to be a good follower, and demonstrate it. Don't undermine your boss in your efforts to lead.
- Monitor your Heart and Behavior: be aware of your feelings and actions.
- Make a Plan: “You will never passively find what you do not actively pursue.”
One of the most powerful elements of this book, for me, was an anecdote the author shared about a time he wanted to pursue an official leadership position. Before he applied, though, he decided to take stock of his skills, and solicit some candid feedback in a 360 degree peer review. He submitted the following three questions to select peers to get a better understanding of himself:
- What did I do over the past few years that inspired you?
- What do I do that frustrates you?
- What do I not know about myself that has become a blind spot?
I thought these questions were great. They're simple to understand, ask for tangible answers instead of some vague scale, and they invite critical responses. Upon reading these, I immediately sent the same three questions to a handful of my peers. The responses I've received are thoughtful, legitimately challenging without being confrontational, and provide me a real direction on which to base my growth. I've had one good candid conversation with one of my respondents, and I plan to follow up with others.
Some other simple advice the author provides is to have a "Lead Me Plan":
- Know where you currently are.
- Have a vision for where you want to go.
- Develop the discipline and accountability to do what it takes to stay on track.
The book was a little meandering in some ways, and some of the really great suggestions were buried in stories and examples. For example, the author dropped this wonderful suggestion for a question to your boss in the middle of a chapter: “If an opportunity for promotion came available, what would keep you from fully recommending me?” Obviously you can't just blurt out that question and expect an on-the-spot answer. But if you prepare your boss in advance, this question is incredibly powerful for learning what you need to learn.
There's also some general motivational questions, exploring why we do what we do. Tying our passions into our work life help us succeed more naturally; but sometimes we need to explicitly examine these things:
- If money were no issue, what would I choose to do with my time?
- What really bothers me? What breaks my heart?
- What gives me life or makes me come alive?
Another interesting aspect of the author's understanding of leadership had to do with critical thinking:
- Stop thinking as an employee. Start thinking as an owner.
- Stop stacking your meetings. Start scheduling thinking meetings.
- “The greatest enemy to critical thinking is an overcrowded schedule.”
- Stop being critical. Start thinking critically.
- Stop giving others a grade. Start lending them a hand.
With respect to presenting a new or challenging idea to people: “The
most well-planned idea usually wins the meeting.” Don't just go into a
meeting with an idea and expect traction. Do your homework and help
bring other people to where you are in your understanding of things.
The latter portion of the book dealt with "challenging up", which is a variant on the notion of managing up. It starts with your relationship to your boss.
- Love your boss.
- “Leadership is about influence. And challenging up is a form of leadership. You are leading your boss to make a decision that they might not make on their own.”
- “You cannot lead someone if you don’t love them. Loving someone and leading them are a package deal.”
- Challenge the process without challenging the person
- To build trust, practice faithfulness. Do the little things to build trust.
- Bring up disagreements when emotions are low.
- In a moment of calm, ask your boss “When I disagree with something I see, what’s the best way to bring it up with you?” That way you know how to approach difficult issues during times of stress.
- Champion publicly, challenge privately.
- Choose to trust your boss.
- Admit to yourself and your boss that you may be missing information.
- If you can’t stay emotionally neutral about a situation, you’re not ready to bring it up.
- Prepare yourself to be okay with a no.
- "No" is not always permanent; usually it means "Not now".
A few other random quotes I collected from the book that I found compelling:
- “The most powerful reason to challenge the status quo is to make it better. "
- If you don't have a clear understanding of the problem or the solution, you won't be able to help others understand it: “If there’s a mist in the pulpit, there’s a fog in the pews.”
- “Hold tight to why, but be loose with what.”
- "Declare your intentions before you challenge." This helps set the foundation that you're working to improve things, not just agitating for your own way.
- "If you wait to start leading, you will never be put in a position to lead."
- "People leave managers, not jobs."
On the whole, I do recommend this book for anyone looking to learn more about effective leadership. The book is good for both individual contributors as well as managers at most levels. It asks thought provoking questions, and provides some really good insights into people and processes. If you can appreciate the religious component, all the better. If not, learn to skim or skip the paragraphs that veer into this territory for maximum benefit.