How To Be A Superb Leader (with Zero Formal Authority)

As a project manager you have zero formal authority but full responsibility.

While this certainly limits your influence it doesn’t mean that you can’t be an effective leader that other people are committed to.

In this article I will show you how you can develop natural authority. Authority that is based on who you are as a person and not on the title you carry.

But first …

What is formal authority?

Formal authority means you have the right to decide what actions others have to perform. It is the authority of a line manager, who can decide what the team should work on and how the work should be performed. Among other things, formal authority includes the following rights:

  • defining the work schedule of people
  • hiring and firing
  • setting employee goals
  • setting the salaries and variable compensation (bonus) of employees

These are quite powerful instruments, right? But …

How important is formal authority, really?

Of course formal authority gives you some extra power over your team members. Especially the right to set peoples’ work schedule would be nice to have. Because as a project leader you always have to ‘fight’ for resources because your team is tied up in other work.

And it would be nice if you could make bonus payments conditional on people’s performance. But would you really want to have all the responsibility that comes with being a boss?

I think people overestimate the level of control that comes with formal authority. Formal authority essentially means you can tell people what they have to do. But this does not mean the work is actually done — let alone that it’s done well.

And don’t you think it’s better if people are intrinsically motivated to work for you? Not because they have to (because you are the manager) but because they enjoy working for you. You’ll probably agree that you can achieve a lot more in the latter case.

What I’m going to teach you how to be a great leader. And how you can actually build a team that is committed to supporting you — no matter what.

How to become a respected and effective leader (with zero formal authority)

Do you know what makes a successful leader?

Great leaders know how to influence people. They use psychological superpower to build respect and trust with their followers and to make people want to work for them.

The foundation of this superpower is your aura. Your aura is the distinctive atmosphere that surrounds you and that people feel during interactions with you. The thing is, if your aura is not powerful, no one will listen to you. But fortunately, you can create this kind of leadership aura by observing and changing your behavior in a number of ways.

Want to know more?

Create your leadership aura

Have you ever worked with a top manager or any other person of high rank? Then you probably had this special feeling of being next to an important person. This is the aura I’m talking about. There’s no one habit or feature that creates this aura. Rather, it’s a combination of things, such as:

  • the way they talk
    (Leaders often speak in the ‘we’ form. They are less me-centered.)
  • their body language
    (Remember the firm handshake?)
  • their life story
    (This is what people talk about in the organization. They say things like ‘Paul Harris was a professional tennis player’)

Body language itself is a fascinating topic and I encourage you to watch the following interview with Vanessa Van Edwards. Teaser: What do you think — do leaders smile more or do they smile less? Vanessa has the answer for you:

I don’t want to go further into speaking like a leader and body language.

Instead, I want to take your attention to another, less talked about element of the leadership aura:

Your story.

Yes, your story.

Because every leader should have a unique story to tell.

Why? People want to have leader they can look up to. Someone who’s particularly skilled at something. Or someone who’s had a significant achievement or overcame a major challenge in his or her life. What this tells us is that the person has figured out life and should actually be a leader.

And your story is your way to communicate to your followers what sets you apart.

So, what is your story?

  • Are you a successful marathon runner?
  • Have you served in the army?
  • Are you an excellent piano player?
  • Are you fluent in several languages?
  • Did you win the first prize in a maths competition?
  • Have you traveled the world on a motorbike?

Part of my story has been that I have a bi-national background with a German mother and a dad from Turkey. People find this interesting and they ask a lot of questions on my background. Also, I’m pretty good playing the violin (I always had the violin with me on business trips), and I speak several languages.

What is your story? Don’t be shy about revealing more about yourself. People WANT to hear your story. And by opening up and having people become part of your life you strengthen the bond between you and your team. This bond is the biggest asset for you to be successful as a leader.

Exercise: Take 15 minutes and grab a paper and pencil. List down all the things that are part of your story.

Next, I’m gonna teach you some useful strategies to make you more effective.

Apply the concept of reciprocity to increase commitment within your team

So far we’ve talked about building your aura as a leader. Your aura can help you to be perceived as a leader. However, it can’t help you in your daily work, where your goal is to get things done with the help of others.

How can you get dedicated support from people who are not your subordinates?

Two concepts from social psychology can help you. The first is the concept of liking and the second is the concept of reciprocity.

The concept of reciprocity says that we are more inclined to give to others if they have given to us before. This is used everywhere in sales, where the salesperson goes out of her way to help you out and make you feel great. You almost can’t say “No, I don’t want that car/TV/insurance” because you have been given so much.

Similarly, you can use reciprocity to increase commitment of your team.

Here are some examples of what you can do:

  • Give feedback to managers: Did somebody talk to your boss to tell him you are doing an excellent job? How did that make you feel? You can do the same and let your team members’ managers know that their people are fantastic to work with. It will reflect back positively on you and team will be even more committed to support you.
  • Help someone out: Is there anything your colleague needs help with? Maybe she’s looking for a good school to take her kids to. And your friend happens to be a teacher at one of the top schools, so you connect them. Or she’s looking for a good hotel in Miami and you’ve been there just a month ago and can give her recommendations.
  • Buy others a coffee: The great thing with reciprocity is that what you give doesn’t have to be of the same size of what you’re trying to get. Therefore even the small act of paying for someone’s coffee can get you a huge return in the form of better work results.
  • Surprise people: I bought ice cream for my team during summer. It was a big surprise and people loved it (I can still picture their happy faces).

Use the concept of liking to become a popular leader

We feel more inclined to help someone if we like the other person. But even though most people understand the connection between popularity and success in life, they don’t consciously manage their behavior so they become more likeable.

This is a big opportunity for you to become a popular leader – someone that other people are drawn to and want to work with.

How can you become more likeable?

  • Exude positive energy
  • Stay physically fit
  • Show a ‘we can do this’ attitude
  • Avoid talking about negative stuff (e.g. the news)
  • Give praise and encouragement

Read my other tips on becoming a more likeable person.

Create the perfect working environment

Ask yourself how you can create an environment that people enjoy working in. This will not only enable people to perform better work. They will also appreciate you being conscious of their needs and as a result feel more committed to your project.

There are several ways to improve the working environment of your team. Your main focus should be on improvements that allow people to be more focused (and avoid disturbances like external noise) and that make them more efficient, for example by getting a printer set up at their office so they don’t have to make endless walks to collect printouts.

Get obstacles out of the way

In general, people want to do their work in the best way they can. But sometimes obstacles get in the way that keep people from finishing the job you gave them. As an effective leader, you should be aware of this and see how you can enable your team to work more effectively.

Obstacles could be:

  • too much other work
  • someone waiting for input from somebody else
  • technical problems
  • personal challenges

What can you do to help your team member deal with their problem? Or if it’s small, maybe you could solve it for them?

Whatever your next step will, if you stay aware of obstacles and take suitable action to mitigate or eliminate those obstacles, your team can perform better and you will see better results. This is how smart leaders think and act.

My question to you

Was this article helpful to you? And which of the techniques are you going to apply next? I am curious to hear. Send me a note on LinkedIn.


  • Adrian Neumeyer

    Hi! I’m Adrian, founder of Tactical Project Manager and Ex-Project Manager with over ten years of experience in project management. Led large-scale IT implementations and business projects. I started Tactical Project Manager to offer you a straightforward and pragmatic approach to project management, enabling you to lead any project with confidence.

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