Being a leader, when you don’t have a title

By: Mary Ceccanese

In many hierarchical organizations, there is a chart showing who has what rank, role, and position. At times, people believe that only those with titles can lead – everyone else is just a follower. However, especially during trying times, we all have the chance, the ability, the choice, and the opportunity to be effective leaders.

Our immediate reaction to such times might be one of fear. When we are afraid we risk that we will forego or deny one of the most fundamental rights of all human beings – treating each other with kindness and respect. When we are shaken to our very core, we may feel angry and frustrated, perhaps like we have lost control. But we know that if we stop for a minute and take a deep breath, we might be more able to effectively deal with the situation. I liken this pause to a phrase that I learned as a child about crossing the street safely – Stop, Look, and Listen!

Stop to see what it is that we are doing, saying, implying? Are we in reaction mode? Are our actions helping or hindering? What can we do to make the situation better?

Look at our surroundings and the people we are engaging with. Are we creating a win/win solution? Are we focused on our own feelings and not considering how others are feeling?

Listen to what others are saying. Are we deeply listening or just waiting for an opportunity to express our feelings? Are we hearing what others are saying? Are we considering common ground?

One of the hallmarks of Professor Jane Dutton’s research has been on building High-Quality Connections (HQCs).¹ These are defined as ties or interactions between people marked by mutual regard, trust, and respectful engagement. Respectful engagement is interacting with another person in such a way that sends a message of value and worth. How do we do this? Here are four ways to lead, whether or not you have a title.

  1. Being present – an opportunity to be open, psychologically available and receptive
    • As Jane¹ writes: “More than 50 percent of the impact of a message is conveyed by body movements, 38 percent by tone of voice (volume, pitch, and the like), and only 7 percent by words.” (p. 28)
    • Use eye contact, lean forward, uncross your arms, use your body language to be receptive.
    • Be available, focus on the here and now. Are you reading the signals that others are sending? Are you responding in a caring manner?
    • Be genuine, sincere, and real.
  2. Communicating affirmation
    • Affirm someone’s situation – understanding when the stress and pressure is on another person.
    • Actively look for the good in another person (giving someone the benefit of the doubt) provides a space for real dialogue to occur.
    • Provide recognition and rewards (acknowledging someone’s strengths and their contributions).
    • Express genuine interest in the whole person.
  3. Listening
    • Acknowledge the feelings (implicitly or explicitly)
    • Paraphrase, expressing in your own words what you believe was said
    • Summarize, pulling together ideas and feelings expressed
    • Clarify, asking questions to ensure you get the full picture
    • Solicit feedback, such as “Do you get the sense that I am listening to you?”
  4. Supportive Communication²
    • Seek to preserve or enhance a positive relationship between you and another person while still addressing a problem, giving negative feedback, or tackling a difficult issue.
    • Use a positivity ratio of 3 positive for every 1 negative to be in an environment that flourishes.³
    • Speak in a way that is solution-centered not person-centered.
    • Define the situation, describe your reaction, suggest an alternative solution.

Putting this into practice

When I first began disseminating Positive Organizational Scholarship principles, I relied almost solely on showing videos. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I wasn’t being as effective as I could have been. The material was all excellent but my delivery left a bit to be desired – that is, until a presentation attendee sat down and talked with me after I was done. At first, I was quite taken aback as he was direct (beyond making me feel uncomfortable), but I chose to Stop, Look, and Listen.

The person sharing an opinion with me was a doctor who had many other responsibilities – patients, meetings, etc. – but he took the time to share with me why he questioned my approach. I pondered that conversation for quite some time and decided to take a risk. If his opinion was one that represented others, I had nothing to lose to try something new. If his views were not experienced by others, I still could learn from his knowledge.

My new strategy incorporated talking from my heart and expressing the depth of why I believe in the principles. It also involves being a model of these principles in action. This process has been refined several times over and continues to evolve. It was worth feeling uncomfortable and to become vulnerable to learn how to lead even more effectively, whatever my role.

We all can choose to lead. When we take responsibility for our own actions, when we respect others, when we listen with both ears, when we strive for positive outcomes, then each of us becomes leaders. We always have a choice – even in our most trying times.

1. Jane E. Dutton (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
2. David A. Whetten and Kim S. Cameron (2010). Developing Management Skills. 8th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hal.
3. Barbara L. Fredrickson (2013). “Updated Thinking on Positivity Ratios.” American Psychologist 68(9): 814-822.

Mary Ceccanese is a Center for Positive Organizations Executive Education Affiliate who is energized and motivated by her desire to share the realm of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Celebrating over twenty years of professional experience working with all levels of staff within corporate environments and higher education, she offers dynamic and informative theory-to-practice tools and exercises developed by the faculty of CPO.

One of these tools, the Task-Enabling™ Exercise, she co-authored with Jane Dutton. Presenting positive and empowering interactive presentations, Mary engages attendees with research-based practices applied to work-life scenarios that can be immediately applied to their day-to-day life. Her presentations have been attended by thousands with unique and diverse backgrounds ranging from small departments to large corporations in both the for-profit and non-profit arenas. In 2010 she received the University of Michigan’s highest award given to staff — the Candace J. Johnson Award for Excellence.