Invisible Influence

In a new column, Korn Ferry’s Bea Staley explains how we can lead and create impact without formal authority.

In 2022, women ran 9% of Fortune 500 companies—a 50% increase from 2017, according to a Korn Ferry analysis. A year later, that percentage would bump up to 10.6%. Moving more women into the C-suite has been a long-held goal of many advocates and businesses alike. However, women do not need to hold the CEO position to lead, influence, and make a difference.

When we think of leaders, we often picture people with impressive titles and corner offices. But how can we lead without these designations? True leadership goes beyond pay, title, seniority, and gender. We all have the power to influence, create impact, and lead effectively, regardless of traditional authority.

This is because leadership and management are not synonymous, and the most impactful leaders don’t wait for promotions to create impact. Consider management as a function of planning, organizing, and coordinating resources to meet goals. Leadership, on the other hand, is a role focused on inspiring, motivating, and empowering others toward a shared vision (think overseeing a high-priority project or taking control and diffusing a crisis at work). Management is more about doing things right, while leadership is more about doing the right things—regardless of position, level, or tenure.

Without the authority that formal management positions or titles offer, it may seem difficult to understand how we can influence and drive impact at work. We can all become leaders by shifting our mindset and doing the right things right now. Leadership is not just about supervising others or overseeing entire departments; it begins with gaining knowledge, sharing resources, and creating empowerment in our current role.

Here are four strategies to help you lead without formal authority:

1. Engage and manage stakeholders at all levels.

To lead well, it is important to manage up and down no matter the position you are in. The most influential and impactful leaders build relationships at all levels versus adhering to a strict top-down hierarchy. Building strong relationships with senior leaders and understanding their priorities helps you become an influential colleague and ultimately a leader. Equally important, mentoring your junior colleagues and empowering them to excel also helps elevate you as a trustworthy teammate and as a leader worth following. Even if you are not a direct supervisor, you can still impact the growth and success of your team above, alongside, and below you. In fact, about 72% of C-suite leaders told Korn Ferry that their roles require influencing without formal authority.

2. Take initiative and step up.

To demonstrate leadership, try looking for opportunities to contribute to projects, activities, or initiatives in your current role but also outside of your main responsibilities. Offer a helping hand, volunteer your time, or find ways to engage with your other areas of interest. Don’t be afraid to take on pet projects, learn and present on interesting topics, and share ideas and information with coworkers. Do these things without expecting immediate benefits; it’s about embodying leadership qualities and becoming a go-to team player whom others know they can count on for guidance and support. By taking this proactive initiative and ownership, you effectively create your leadership position today and begin to chart your path to additional leadership opportunities in the future.

3. Create experience and reframe leadership.

Leadership comes with experience, and we all have to start somewhere. Shift the conversation from a focus on managerial ownership to an emphasis on your contribution, your relevant capabilities, and leading by example. Build on your experiences by developing your skills and knowledge in your spare time, and don’t shy away from creating experiences that are currently unavailable to you or just out of reach. For example, if you lack formal experience as a Project Manager, you might propose to lead a project that matches your skills, interests, and goals. According to CEOs who participated in a Korn Ferry survey, organizations should support women in the pipeline to take on challenging roles and projects that require courage and risk-taking. Doing so not only boosts confidence but also expands the skillset and credentials required to assume similar leadership positions.

4. Own your impact.

When the camera starts rolling and the lights come on, present yourself as qualified and credible, and show up confidently even when you doubt yourself. Though it may be uncomfortable, it is crucial to take ownership of your work and contribution and believe in your expertise. Elevating others is vital and the mark of a good leader, but it is equally important to elevate yourself through projects, coaching, mentorship, and more. The example you set matters, especially for younger employees who may look to you for guidance. Leading by example, particularly for women, is more important than ever, given the enhanced impact of role models.

We have the power to lead and create followership in any situation because leadership is not a position; it is a mindset. When we adopt a leadership mindset and leverage our current positions to lead today, we create real opportunities to inspire others and achieve our goals.