Facing Uncertainty, Head-On

Now with a presidential election joining all of today’s uncertainty, experts say organizations will need to find and nurture their informal leaders.

It had to happen. In a world already overloaded with uncertainty over the pandemic and the struggling economy, the results of the US presidential election had to be dragged out over multiple days. 

But while court battles and recounts may extend the election drama, experts say firms should look beyond just the CEO for leadership—and rely heavily on the “no title” leaders. These are the employees who have little formal power and authority, but who can make a positive impact on the company and colleagues. Indeed, multiple studies over the past several years indicate that informal leaders are may have as much, or more, impact on team performance than formal bosses. “You don’t need to have positional power to make a difference,” says Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute. 

There are countless instances of people who are asked to lead projects in an unofficial capacity, having to generate budgets and manage teams, but not having any actual authority over the people they work with. These no-title leaders often do not let preconceived notions of leadership stop them from making an impact. “We can get stuck in cookie-cutter stereotypes—how a leader talks, acts, or looks,” says Orr. No-title leaders also focus their efforts on things they can control versus things they cannot. "If you do a good job prioritizing and executing what you can control, whatever that is, then you have a chance of having your influence grow," says Linda Hyman, Korn Ferry's executive vice president of global human resources. 

Besides not having formal titles, these people have several other things in common. First, they tend to be very self-aware, understanding how their own emotions impact their actions and performance. Rather than just pushing ideas, they pause and take stock of potential consequences and results, says Tracy Mayer, a leadership development consultant at Korn Ferry Advance

This group is also extremely empathetic. “You’re not going to be able to influence anybody unless you truly understand the person across the table,” Mayer says. Using that empathy, these no-title leaders can tie what they want to the goals and needs of what others want. That lets them find common ground and win over allies to push for a shared agenda. 

No-title leaders also have a sense of organizational awareness—the ability to not only understand the forces at work within an organization but also the guiding values and unspoken rules that operate among its people. They know who the stakeholders are, how they feel, and how to help them overcome obstacles.  

Above all, no-title leaders also thrive in ambiguity. The fact that they often don’t have any formal authority creates uncertainty. Instead of letting that stop them, no-title leaders are learning agile; they embrace the uncertainty, using their previous experiences to help them tackle new challenges. Learning agility doesn’t come naturally to everyone, even these no-title leaders, Orr says, but it can be taught.