6 Ways To Lead When You Are Not In Charge

by Frank Powell

How is it possible to lead when you are not in charge? This is a struggle I have everyday. As a young minister, I find myself trying to figuring out what it looks like to lead even though I am not in charge.

I know young leaders frustrated with their current position. They are not involved in decision-making, so their response is to give up or become stagnate.

And these are common responses to not being “the man.” But what if you could lead well now? What if you could lead even though you are not in charge? A few months ago, I attended a class at the Catalyst conference that addressed this topic. Clay Scroggins taught the class, and his thoughts lay the framework for most of the content below. Of course, I will mix in my thoughts as well.

If you are a young leader struggling to determine your role or if you are unclear how to lead when you aren’t involved in the decision-making or planning process, this post is for you.

Here are 6 ways to lead when you’re not in charge.

1.) Lead yourself well.

[pullquote cite=”Bishop Fulton Sheen” type=”left”]Civilization is always in danger when those who have never learned to obey are given the right to command.[/pullquote]The smallest crowd you will ever lead is yourself. But it is the most important crowd. If you desire to lead a church, business, or anything in between, you must learn how to lead yourself.

How do you lead yourself well? Practice self-discipline. Nurture patience. Hold yourself to a higher standard than you hold others. Read books. Hold yourself accountable. And learn how to be a follower.

Yes, a follower. Oh, I get it. You were born to be a leader. But every great leader was a great follower. Why? Great leaders understand the world followers live in. Great leaders know what it is like to be under authority. So they have a better idea of how authority should be exercised. Great leaders understand their staff and congregation because they have walked in their shoes.

So, learn the art of followership. It is essential for great leadership.

[tweet_box design=”default”]Nothing proves a man’s ability to lead others more than how he leads himself day to day.[/tweet_box]

Nothing proves a man’s ability to lead others more than how he leads himself day to day. Are you leading yourself well?

2.) Choose to be positive.

[pullquote cite=”Clay Scroggins” type=”right”]The greatest thing I bring to my team is not my gifts and talent, but my attitude.[/pullquote]You must choose to be positive. And I say “choose” because positivity is not something that flows from the heart naturally. We live in a cynical world filled with cynical people. And in this culture, positivity is an enormously important virtue to practice and grow.

When you are not in charge, the natural response is to be cynical. “I could do that better. They don’t know what they are doing.” You get the idea. This is why positivity is ultimately a fight for “we” over “me” and “us” over “them.”

Great leaders never draw battle lines by using this language. And, as someone not in charge, you have a decision to make. Regardless of the situation or circumstances, will you bring positivity to your church or organization? It might be the most important gift you can provide.

3.) Think critically.

Think critically. But don’t be critical. Note the difference. Critical thinking is a skill. Being critical is a snare. And, yes, the line between the two is razor thin. The distinction lies in the heart. If you want to know whether you are being critical or thinking critically, ask yourself this question:

Do you want others to succeed?

Critical thinkers always want others to succeed. Cynics hope everyone fails. Everyone but #1, of course.

Critical thinkers take note of the decisions around them. They look at other ministries, programs, meetings, and ask this question…HOW CAN WE MAKE IT BETTER?

[tweet_box design=”default”]Leaders are always content. But they are never satisfied.[/tweet_box]

Leaders are always content. But they are never satisfied. And for those of us in ministry, we strive to reflect a perfect God. In our personal lives. In our ministries. In our churches. We should always ask, “How can we make it better?” God is the standard. And although reaching the goal is impossible, striving for it is not.

4.) Be collaborative, not competitive.

[pullquote cite=”Brad Lomenick” type=”left”]You don’t have to blow out someone else’s candle to make yours shine brighter.[/pullquote]Last week, a friend asked me if I would let my boys win in basketball when they were younger to give them some confidence? I can’t say what I was thinking, but my response? Absolutely not. I don’t like losing. Ever. I don’t care if I am playing my grandmother in bridge. I want to win.

And my competitive drive is from God. I believe that. But my competitive drive doesn’t translate well to everyday ministry. Here’s why. When you aren’t in charge and everything is a competition, you secretly hope those further up the ladder fail. Oh, you would never say it. But this is how competitions work. There is no collaboration. There is a winner. And in the words of the great philosopher Ricky Bobby, “Second place is the first loser.”

Use your competitive nature to drive you to be the best person and employee possible. But don’t compete against your staff. Great leaders are great collaborators. They don’t secretly hope others fail. They openly help others succeed. Because one day you will be in charge. And you will want collaborators working with you, not competitors.

[tweet_box design=”default”]Great leaders don’t secretly hope others fail. They openly help others succeed.[/tweet_box]

5.) Refuse to be passive.

There is nothing more crippling to an organization than passive leaders. And if you are not in charge, the default is to be passive.

But if you want to be a great leader, don’t buy into this non-sense. Get to work. Don’t wait on someone to give you orders. Take initiative. I have seen this working with young leaders and interns. The most productive leaders don’t need me to constantly tell them what to do. They don’t need checklists. They figure it out.

And remember this: if you are waiting on something to work on, you will not be trusted when there are things to do. If those in charge of you aren’t giving you tasks to complete, don’t be cynical. Look at the freedom as an opportunity to grow. Read. Study. Find mentors.

Don’t wait for others to tell you what to do. Be an initiator.

6.) Understand power does not equal authority.

If you are a young leader and you believe you must be in a position of authority to have influence, you don’t understand leadership. Leadership is cultivating influence where you are. If you have to leverage positional authority to gain influence, you are not a good leader.

[tweet_box design=”default”]If you have to leverage positional authority to gain influence, you are not a good leader.[/tweet_box]

So, even though you are not in charge, you have the ability to influence. Don’t believe you must wait for a title to impact your church or organization. Lead now. Lead well.


Maybe you have some points I did not mention. Do you have experience leading young people? Maybe you have learned some things when you were not in charge that helped you become a great leader. Let’s keep the conversation going. Leave a comment below.

I love you all. To God be the glory forever. Amen!

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Andrew Gilmore December 29, 2014 - 10:54 am

The scenario you raise reminds me of David when he was a shepherd. When he saw Goliath and his taunts, he took charge when everyone else was afraid. He led before he had authority, before he was given permission, and as a result ended up being king of Israel.

Frank Powell December 31, 2014 - 7:10 am

Andrew, I appreciate you mentioning David. Contrast him with King Saul, who tried to exercise his positional authority to continue holding his kingship even though God anointed David. Meanwhile, David did not need a title or position to impact others. He killed Goliath and attracted a large following before he became king. Great stuff man! Blessings!

John C. Smith January 2, 2015 - 6:40 pm

And then walked in humility and submission to the authorities in his life, even when he was being touted by the accolades of others.

John Caleb Grenn December 30, 2014 - 8:48 am

When I was a teenager I read a book by John Maxwell called “The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader.” I’ve read it several times, and I feel like you wrote this in the same heart as Maxwell wrote his and even added new things he’d never even touched. This is my favorite article you’ve written!

Frank Powell December 31, 2014 - 7:07 am

John, thanks so much for the encouragement. The book from John Maxwell you referenced is a must for leaders! Thanks for reading and commenting! Blessings!

GAS January 1, 2015 - 8:52 am

Leadership is not based on strength but on might.

Frank Powell January 1, 2015 - 10:07 am

Good point! Thanks for the comment!

Matthew January 6, 2015 - 11:37 pm

Thank you Frank! I needed to hear this. I’ve been trying hard to lead “upwards” and just had lots of opposition due to negativity and backstabbing. I can’t change them but I can change myself! I will try harder again. Thanks so much.

lorigrizzell January 8, 2015 - 2:25 pm


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