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:

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:

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":

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:

Another interesting aspect of the author's understanding of leadership had to do with critical thinking:

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.

A few other random quotes I collected from the book that I found compelling:

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.

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