How to lead when you’re not in charge

Summary of HOW TO LEAD WHEN YOU’RE NOT IN CHARGE: Leveraging Influence When You Lack Authority by Clay Scroggins.  Summary by Avery Erwin.


  • No matter your position, you can create a pocket of excellence around you right now.
  • Influence, not authority, is the real currency of leadership.
  • Develop a plan to grow as a leader. Lead yourself, choose positivity, think critically, and reject passivity.
  • Know when, how, and why to challenge authority. Don’t stay silent.
  • The way you lead now determines how you will lead in the future.

Start leading now.

Clay Scroggins worked his way up from facilities intern to lead pastor at the North Point megachurch outside Atlanta, Georgia. Looking back on his twenty years rising through the ranks, Scroggins realizes that he missed many opportunities to develop as a leader well before he was officially in charge. He challenges readers to stop dreaming about a corner office and discover the opportunities they have, right now, to lead. If you wait to lead, Scroggins insists, no one will never be put you in a position to lead.

Influence is the currency of leadership. Think kabash, not kibosh.

Many of us buy into the myth that we must be at the top of the totem pole to lead an organization. This kind of thinking conditions us to assume a go-with-the-flow attitude and shrug off responsibility. We make excuses, blame the institutional machinery. But Scroggins looks at self-appointed leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi as hard proof that “Leaders lead with the authority of leadership … or without it.” In fact, many who have formal authority fail to lead. The real lifeforce of leadership is not authority, but influence. The call to leadership is about forgoing brute force and instead cultivating one’s influence, wherever you are positioned in your organization. By focusing on your own area of responsibility, you can create an “oasis of excellence” around you that ripples on up.

We all know kibosh, like “put the kibosh on it.”   Kibosh means “put an end to; dispose of decisively”.  A kibosh leader eliminates, subordinates, squashes, puts an end to people and projects. They leverage their authority to elevate themselves. Scroggins calls for a kabash style of leadership, from the Hebrew word for “subdue.” In its original context, kabash means to bring something under your control in order to cultivate it. A kabash leader leverages influence to elevate those around them. They lead by humility and create space for others to flourish. A kabash leaders shows up to serve.

Plan to Grow as a Leader: Practice the Four Behaviors.

1. Lead Yourself

“Nothing so conclusively proves a man’s ability to lead others

as what he does on a day-to-day basis to lead himself.”

– Tom Watson, former CEO of IBM

The onus is on you to develop as a leader. Don’t depend on your boss to lead you well, or to find opportunities for you to lead. For burgeoning leaders, Scroggins stresses the importance of having a personal vision and built-in accountability. Make a plan to lead. Use others to motivate yourself to assume more responsibility. Get feedback on how you’re developing as a leader. When Scroggins made a job transition some years ago, he conducted an anonymous 360-degree survey of his former coworkers. If you want feedback, you need to ask for feedback. And never stop asking. Even leaders at the top continue to hone their leadership skills. “No matter how successful they become,” Jim Collins explains of truly great leaders, they “maintain a learning curve as steep as when they first began their careers.”

2. Choose Positivity

Research shows that people are most fulfilled at work when they understand how their specific role contributes to the larger results of their organization. Positive energy alone is a tremendous asset to a team and to an organization. One way to boot up a positive approach is to embrace a panoramic, what Scroggins calls a “panoptic,” view of expectancy and hopefulness, a mental posture that is fueled by trust and forward-thinking. Positivity, mind you, doesn’t come naturally. It’s developed, and it’s during the hard decisions you didn’t make and might not like that, as a leader, you’re called on stay positive.

3. Think Critically

There is such a thing as too much positivity. Unbridled positivity can be shortsighted or unrealistic. Beware of becoming what Scroggins calls the “rainbow-puking unicorn.”

Reinforce a positive approach with critical thinking. Scroggins isolates the three pillars of thinking critically:

  • Question. Challenge assumptions so you can discover the hidden realities behind actions and outcomes.
  • Notice. Pay attention to abnormalities.
  • Connect. Draw connections between seemingly disconnected behaviors and feelings. Understand the cause and effect relationships. The more connections you can draw, the more self-aware you’ll be.

Nothing fosters critical thinking like facing obstacles. Scroggins looks at the example of NFL quarterbacks who came from second-rate football colleges. Their “tough road” turned them into critical thinkers. Because his college couldn’t recruit a powerhouse offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger learned how to scramble out of broken pockets on his own.

Thinking critically means thinking as an owner, even if you’re an intern. It means scheduling thinking meetings between meetings, instead of getting sucked, half-alert, into the vortex of back-to-back meetings. Efficient is not always effective. A leader who thinks critically keeps strong motives front and center. Instead of being critical, they think critically about the situation and lend others a hand.

4. Reject Passivity

“You will never passively find what you do not actively pursue.”

– Tim Cooper

Remember, you’re in charge of yourself. Don’t depend on your boss to find work for you. Scroggins has a handy mnemonic to help you “resuscitate your proactivity.” Do CPR.

  • Choose. If you’re mid-level or even an underling in an organization, you often have a better idea of what needs to be done than those who are officially in charge. Take initiative and pick a project. Don’t wait for your boss to pick a project for you. Clean out the company closet that’s stuffed to the brim.
  • Plan. Once you stop stacking meetings and start scheduling thinking meetings for yourself, you’ll discover that well-planned ideas thrive at meetings because they had time to develop. In your calendar, plan time to plan.
  • Respond. Don’t get caught on your heels putting out fires all day. Respond to what’s most important, not just what’s next. Pay attention to the direction your boss is heading in, so you can both respond swiftly and anticipate the next move.


Challenge authority.

Many organizations unconsciously tend toward the status quo and resist change. Great leaders challenge the status quo to make changes for the better. This means learning to spot problems in the first place and then brainstorming solutions. Challenging the status quo also always means challenging up. How you approach the challenge will dictate just how well the challenge goes. Tailor your approach to fit the person you’re challenging. Great leaders don’t get defensive and take challenges to their system personally, but understand, as Scroggins says, that a “Change to the present system will be perceived as a criticism of past leadership.”

The Milkshake Experiment. Scroggins zeroes in on Shane Todd as a perfect case-study for making a patient, wise, and paradigm-shifting challenge to authority. In 2006, Shane was a Chick-fil-A franchise owner and operator in Athens, Georgia. He recognized a demand and introduced the milkshake at his store before it was available nationwide. Shane understood that senior management was concerned about service time, so when Tim Tassopoulus, senior VP of operations, visited Shane’s store, Shane proposed a race. If Tim could prepare two diet cokes faster than Shane could make a milkshake, Shane would call off the milkshake experiment. Two years later, the milkshake was the highest rated product on Chick-fil-A’s menu.

Shane was a single franchise owner, but he had cultivated enough relational capital to challenge delicately and strategically so he could bring about what was ultimately a game-changer for Chick-fil-A. His experiment supplies us with a whole toolkit for challenging up. Here are 10 tools:

  • When you approach your boss with a problem, think ahead and present a solution.
  • Be explicit that you have good intentions before you challenge.
  • Be curious, ask questions, and mean it. Admit that you may be missing information.
  • Know what your boss wants.
  • Know what’s essential to your organization’s mission. Acknowledge what’s secondary.
  • Challenge up quietly, but don’t stay silent.
  • Challenge when emotions are low.
  • Champion publicly, challenge privately. Schedule one-on-one time with your boss.
  • Be okay with a no. Take it as a not yet.
  • Why you’re challenging is more important than what you’re challenging.

Scroggins boils the art of challenging up down to one thought-provoking question: “how does your boss feel when your name pops on his or her phone?”

“As now, so then.” Your influence today will determine your influence tomorrow.

Every day, you are around people whom you can lead and serve. True leadership is powered by influence and filled with humility and self-sacrifice. Many leaders focus on their own success. Few leaders commit themselves to their entire staff, up and down the totem pole. The numbers say a lot: according to one Gallup poll, 50% of people who leave their jobs do so because of their bosses.

Like positivity and critical thinking, leadership is a skill that must be developed. Otherwise, it atrophies. If you don’t develop your ability to lead today, you won’t have the equipment or instincts to lead when you’re finally put in charge. Scroggins takes a point from Scott Adams, who advises, “Avoid career traps such as pursuing jobs that require you to sell your limited supply of time while preparing you for nothing better.” Look for opportunities to lead right now, wherever you are on the totem pole. Every role is an opportunity to lead. Stick to a personal growth plan for developing as a leader. Make a list of exemplary leaders whom you can model. True leaders are self-leaders, self-teachers.

Every role is training for the future, when you will have the corner office and be officially in charge. But every role until then is still an opportunity to lead. Remember that the most powerful leader is a servant-leader, someone who shows up and asks, “are the people I’m leading here for me or am I here for them?” Start cultivating your pocket of excellence today.