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Senior Correspondent

Leading Without Direct Reports

Leading Without Direct Reports


Leadership does not begin the when you step upon the first rung of the management ladder. One direct report does not make you a leader; nor does ten. Yet, the moment you have direct reports, you are EXPECTED to lead. And when you fail to demonstrate traits critical to successful leadership, the expectations of your colleagues and subordinates are dashed.

The previous paragraph embodies a paradigm — we are conditioned to think about leadership in terms of leading others. Every dictionary bears this out; so does our own experience. We’ve seen the power of teamwork. We know the value of inspired employees, and we recognize the importance of uniting individuals behind a common, worthy cause. But, leadership isn’t always directing others.

Leadership Comes in All Shapes and Sizes

Think about the millions of people in the workforce who do not have direct reports. Are they expected to lead? Seldom, and at best, never to the degree of those in “management.” Yet, there are countless examples of sole proprietors, artists, plumbers, carpenters, and bus drivers who demonstrate leadership day in and day out. Superb acts of leadership find indelible places in our minds especially when characterized by high-pressure, courageous acts taken within limited timeframes — a cabbie delivering a passenger’s baby, a pilot landing a jetliner on a river in a busy metropolis, a school teacher protecting her class from a gun-wielding madman.

Craft or Career. Which Will It Be?

Decades ago, I was moved by a business school article entitled, “Craft or Career. Which will it be?” The author, a professor, was making the point that crafts and careers are not mutually exclusive — that craftspeople do not have to climb the management ladder to realize fulfilling careers. Far too often, organizations discount the leadership value of skilled employees who either don’t want to advance in the management pecking order, or wouldn’t thrive in that particular environment.

When I was a CEO, I had the pleasure of working with such an individual, an ambitious purchasing agent who I’ll call Walter. Walter measured career development according to one’s place on the organization chart. But Walter didn’t have the necessary skills to move to the next level. Sensing Walter’s frustration, I decided to meet with him. I didn’t want to lose Walter because he was skilled at his job and a tier-one team player. So I talked about craft and career, after which, I said, “We can’t promise you a promotion, Walter, but we’ll do all we can to make you the best purchasing agent in this industry.” He wanted to know how. “By investing in you,” I said.

In the years to follow, Walter enrolled in supply management courses at some of the best universities. He joined the boards of industry associations, he cross-trained in other departments, and he connected with skilled practitioners of his craft from other companies. Throughout the process, Walter not only advanced his career, he flourished as a leader and mentor.

Leaders Influence Directly AND Indirectly

Ultimately, leadership is the ability to influence others. This can happen directly and indirectly. At the most basic level, leadership takes place by example, by watching and listening to artists at work — by studying their style, their habits, their techniques, their disciplines, and their standards. And if you are lucky enough to come upon an expert who is keen to share his or her tricks of the trade, you will be in the presence of a leader.

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