“I am the CEO!” Leading without Authority

Written by lewsauder

April 7, 2017

Leading without Authority

I once worked for a man who believed that his title gave him authority. He was the CEO of the company and never hesitated to let people know. He always introduced himself emphasizing his title and listed the C-level positions he had held in the past.

If anyone disagreed with him, he would scold them, telling them “I am the CEO of this company!” as if that gave him omnipotent authority and knowledge.

As you might guess, productivity and morale suffered, and turnover was high in this organization. What he thought gave him authority was much more a form of intimidation. People would be submissive. But there were no passionate followers.

Project management authority

Project managers can probably relate to this CEO. They are put in charge of a group of people they often have no authority over. By definition, a project is a temporary effort. As such, many times a project team is a group of individuals that have a permanent reporting structure elsewhere. They report to a project manager in a more matrixed structure.

This leads project managers to the classic argument that they have “all of the responsibility with none of the authority.” It’s enough to induce the project manager to cry, “I am the project manager!” when they feel they don’t get the authoritarian respect they deserve.

How is authority granted?

Authority doesn’t come from a title. It comes from leadership. You may ask how one can be a leader if they don’t move up the ranks and begin acquiring titles.

Leadership starts at the beginning of your career. You may feel like you don’t have authority when you’re first starting out. But it comes from how you carry yourself and how you communicate. It comes from demonstrating integrity and maturity.

Leadership at this level (all levels really) is not about arrogance and showing your superiority. It’s about communicating clearly and succinctly. It’s about helping others succeed. A leader is collaborative.

People will voluntarily follow someone they respect. A good leader needs no formally granted authority. All one needs is to develop credibility.

Developing credibility

Credibility is established through one’s priorities.  Poor leaders prioritize their ego over the goals of the project or the organization. They concern themselves more about how they are perceived than anything else.

This type of leader is more concerned about being right than achieving project objectives. This type of project manager will often be argumentative when others disagree with his ideas. He may even seek ways to discredit people to make them look bad, just for disagreeing with him.

A true leader listens more than he talks. He encourages input from others and seeks out new ideas that may help resolve issues in creative ways. It has been said that if two partners agree on everything, there is one too many partners. A similar statement can be said for project teams. If everyone agrees with the leader, there is probably a problem. The leader is not seeking alternative opinions. Worse yet, the team may be intimidated by the manager and afraid to voice their opinion.

Leading Without Authority

Effective project managers know that smart team members are not going to follow them simply because they have been put in charge. A leader will develop a collaborative relationship with the team. He will establish an environment where people feel the freedom to speak up and disagree for the betterment of the project.

This doesn’t mean that a leader will always agree. There are times when a project manager has to disagree with a team member’s suggestion and make an unpopular decision.

If this is done in the spirit of advancing or improving the project rather than stroking the project manager’s ego, the team will be more likely to accept the decision and move on.


Leaders are followed by others based on their actions and the credibility they establish through those actions. Managers who selfishly distract team members from project objectives end up with ineffective teams and failed projects.

How have you accomplished the difficult task of leading without authority?

If you would like to learn more about a career in Project Management, get Lew’s book Project Management 101: 101 Tips for Success in Project Management on Amazon.

Please feel free to provide feedback in the comments section below.

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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