How you can show leadership when you are not in an actual leadership position

Many Project Managers find themselves in a project holding the title “Project Manager,” but these people are not in charge of the team. For example, you may be one of these people who are the “Project Coordinator” or an assistant to the actual Team Leader. Your only job is calculating the schedule and showing the functional managers how the project plan may look, but you aren’t the Team Leader.

People in this position often ask how to move from Coordinator to Leader. This article will explore how to do that and answer the question, “Can you show leadership when not in a leadership position?”

Getting started-What Defines a Leader?

The first thing you learn when trying to move up in a business is to make people see you as a leader. You must stand out in a positive light.

To understand how to do this, a person should look deeper at the job description of the Team Member, Project Coordinator, and what a Project Manager is. Then look at the definition of how a leader differentiates themselves from the rest.

Team Member – A person who is a member of a team. They might hold the position of SME (Subject Matter Expert) or just another support person. Though they have no responsibilities outside their assigned tasks, they can still show leadership through how they support the overall progress of the team’s tasks.

The Project Coordinator – A person responsible for keeping track and coordinating the schedule,
budget, and Risks and Issues of the project. The coordinator usually reports to a Project Manager or other type of Functional Manager. This person is not responsible for the actual decision-making.

The Project Manager – A person responsible for overseeing the project’s direction,
implementation, and execution. This person works with the client while leading the team to develop the strategy to achieve the project’s goals to ensure successful completion. This person is the one in charge and responsible for the project.

Manager-or-Leader -or-Leader – (In accordance with the Business Mgt. Departments of the University of Maryland (USA), Northeastern University (USA), University of Salford (UK), and Forbes Magazine)

A manager thinks short-term about how to reach the goal and relies on existing and proven skills.
They have employees working for them. They assign tasks and focus on the systems in place to complete the tasks. A manager’s reliance is on proven existing skills. They seek to keep risk down to a minimum, as the manager will not risk trying a new way to finish the task quicker and better. The manager mimics the styles of others rather than learning from them and finding ways to improve and define their own style. This person will stick to the process at hand and not change the status quo. The manager seeks to reach the set goal.

A Leader looks beyond the horizon and thinks long-term. This person wishes to inspire people, not only those working for them but their clients. They want to inspire people to be part of something larger than just the task at hand. They don’t have employees, but people who follow because they believe in the vision the leader has sold them. They see their people as competent experts in their field and find ways to coach them into thinking they are the experts and don’t need to tell them what to do and how to do it. The leader wants to learn something new daily and strive for it. They look to grow with their teams and clients. A leader is willing to take a risk and try new things to better their job, team, and themselves. They don’t mind disrupting the status quo so long it betters the outcome of the task at hand and future missions that come to them. They are always looking for ways to improve things. Even a project that went from start to completion can be improved, and a leader will find a way to motivate everyone to find better ways to do it.

Which are you?
So, are you the Coordinator, Manger, or Leader? Do you want to be the leader, or if already in the position, a better leader? Read on and see what leaders have said about showing you are a leader when not in a leadership position.

Showing you are a leader

Looking into this, we will find Active and Passive ways to show leadership when not in a leadership position. The Active forms are ways to take charge when everyone else is looking around. Passive forms are where you subtly question why something is done a certain way or make subtle suggestions.

Active leadership:

1. Take charge when the leader is gone.

An excellent example of this comes from a Boy Scout. A man already a proven leader in his field said the best example of showing leadership came from when he taught leadership to Boy Scouts. He would always ask youth, “Can you show leadership without holding a leadership position, and if yes, how?” For years he would always get the standard school answer, “Lead by example. Do your job, show up on time, and make no excuses when you make a mistake.”

Example of this: The answer that summed it up for him was the Scout who said, “Take charge when others aren’t.” example: “At the end of the day, you know your team is assigned to clean up the meeting room, but the team leader isn’t there, and everyone is standing around. So you grab two brooms and say, “I’ll start sweeping over there, hand it to the closest person and say, “You can get it over there.” Then point at the next closest and say, you and the others can move the chairs and tables.” Then ask, “Who can take out the trash.”

Not only has this young man already done this, but often he wasn’t even the senior member of his team. Yet, he saw a job that needed to be done and took charge of getting it done.

2.  Show initiative:

Look for jobs that need to be done but maybe not yet assigned. Then, take the initiative to do it before anyone needs to assign it.

Example: A man was responsible for ensuring the Problem Management Processes for working with each new account were in place based on the client’s specific needs. One account was expanding into Australia and New Zealand, and everyone in his team knew it wouldn’t be long before it became official. As there was a couple of days, he took it upon himself to write up the processes for the Australia and New Zealand expansion, so it would be ready when everything was made official.

Later, in a weekly team meeting, when it was time to give his status, he said he had everything in place when the Australia and New Zealand expansion was official. When his team leader asked why two other members haven’t put their part in place, they replied, “No.” When she, the team leader, asked, “Why is he ready and you’re not?” They replied, “We will only do it when the expansion is official.”

She, the team leader, then asked, “What if the deal falls through and the expansion doesn’t take place?” He replied, “Then we can write it off as training because you learn something in every type of Process you write up.”

When it was finally made official, the team only received a 48-hour notice. The job took more than 48 hours, and the other members struggled to reach the deadline.

At the end of that year, he received the highest performance grade in his team because he showed the ability to take the initiative and be prepared. Later, when he applied to another team to be the Project Manager, his manager wrote a very impressive recommendation to the manager and received the promotion.

3. Take responsibility:

Many people believe the term, taking responsibility equates to being a dependable person who will get the job done. Even though “being responsible” does mean you are a “dependable person,” you should remember a leader already picked you to be in a team because they believed you are trustworthy. Being “the” person, who “Takes Responsibility” goes a step further. Here are three ways to break this down.

     3.1. Go beyond doing your task alone and volunteering when needed.

In this scenario, you have your task in the team handed to you. You show the classic example of being a dependable person and showing an example by completing your job but taking it one step further. You show the others you are willing to prove you’re not just another member but willing to support others with their different tasks. Again, returning to the example of taking charge, you are looking for ways to invest. You let the other team members know you will not only support them in their tasks but take responsibility to help them see through to completion.

Example: An IT Architect was assigned to create the design for how the servers would be installed in a Data Center. He saw that his design depended on the Network design’s completion. He spoke with the IT Architect working on the Network design and learned the person needed more information and would have to contact four different people. Then there would be more work required to calculate the data. To help speed this up, he offered to help gather the information needed and with the calculations to understand how much bandwidth is necessary, etc… This showed him to be a dependable person and a leader and saved the project one day of work.

     3.2. Give credit to others:

The best example of this would be in the example mentioned in 2.1. When looking at this example from the point of view of the IT Architect responsible for the Network design. The IT Architect accountable for performing the Server design took time to help the IT Architect responsible for the Network design. After completion of the Network design, the IT Architect for the Network would make sure management knew of the contribution made by the IT Architect for the Server design that saved the project one day of work.

Doing this helps you earn respect and inspire others to follow you when you are responsible for a team.

     3.3. Own up to your mistakes:

No matter how hard a person tries, it can and most likely will happen that a mistake will be made. Often a person will have forgotten to include something or take a chance on something that fails. It has happened that in these cases, the person would try to blame somebody else.

Example: A man was tasked with setting up the company’s standard carrier to deliver a particular washing machine to one of his company’s largest clients. It had to be there within 48 hours. A colleague from another team told him that Brand-X Delivery would be cheaper. He decided to give them the contract without seeing if other Brand-X Delivery clients were happy with their service. Unfortunately, the washing machines were not delivered on time. The client had to spend extra to have another company bring them a different washing machine. They also canceled all future contracts. He also saw that if he had taken an hour to first research Brand-X Delivery, he would have seen many people leave complaints about Brand-X Delivery having a reputation for not making deliveries on time. Instead of trying to pass the blame to his colleague, he owned up to his choosing Brand-X Delivery was a mistake and offered to find a way to make up for it and accept any reprimand that may come, even if it meant the termination of his job.

When he later interviewed for a new similar position, he was asked if he had ever made mistakes and learned from them. He admitted that he once used a lousy carrier and explained what he learned about ensuring that a company has a good or bad reputation. The new manager accepted this as a learning event and has since moved up again in his job. 

Passive Leadership:

1. Listening

Now some people will argue that listening is an active form of leadership. Active or Passive, many believe that listening is the most crucial tool a good leader can have. However, many people overlook this quality from my experience in researching leadership.

Many people will say that’s important for a person already in a leadership position. So how does a team leader demonstrate they have these skills?

     1.1. Take Notes:

Taking notes and even volunteering to take meeting minutes lets managers see you are listening. So even when not responsible, take notes.

Example: A person with ADHD who became a Project Manager and is now an executive in his company explained how taking notes saved his job and led to his first big promotion.

He would sit in meetings, and to help concentrate, he would have a piece of paper on the side, where he would scribble patterns while listening in meetings. Once his manager saw this and asked if he was bored and why he wasn’t paying attention.

He addressed this problem in the next meeting, taking the form of meeting minutes. Then when the assistant who usually took the minutes posted them.  He would share his notes saying, this is what I saw. He noticed when he took his notes after the meeting, it helped him find questions and suggestions (The next section) to benefit the team for current and future projects.

2. Subtle Questions and suggestions, be active in meetings

When you’re in team meetings or doing your daily work interacting with the other team members, the only way to show interest is through regular contact, looking for things of sincere interest, and asking for more details. In many cases, you can find ways to suggest forms of improvement.

One example: A man explained how he started moving up in his small desk-side support company to become the company’s director. He explained how during the first six months in his company, his manager was disappointed that he never had questions in the monthly department meetings. He said he was happy with how things went. He didn’t realize that nobody had a way to recognize his happiness with how things worked. So here is how he was able to put a question into a suggestion together and go beyond to become noticed.

Example of question and suggestion: He spoke up, saying, “I also have this problem. Is there a way we can have management send a list of times, and each user picks a time they can allow us on their desktop? Also, could we have management make it clear we must install this software by the intended date or else the users will be at fault?”

He was surprised that what sounded like a common-sense idea was something nobody else thought about. So, his team leader put him in charge of having management schedule the necessary appointments with the users.

Example of going beyond: In the cases where he was just happy with everything, he followed the example of giving credit to others during the meetings. He would listen to the discussion and look for a reason to point out how he noticed someone did a little extra to satisfy a client or help another team member. Then, he went beyond that and, when walking around the office, would see somebody he realized did something and say things like, “Hey Bob, I heard Mrs. Robinson on the fourth was really happy how you fixed her printer.” Doing things like this made everyone happy to see him.

One final example be seen outside your team as well

1. The man who moved to become a Project Manager and on to Executive

A young man, now a Senior Executive in a global company, started out as a team member doing the abovementioned things. He was already following the examples of taking charge and listening. This was getting him noticed by his management, but he wanted to stand out in front of the higher management.

He looked around and started organizing group activities for after work. An example: he noticed his corporation was trying to get everyone involved with a fitness form that was going on in 2010. He went on his company’s internal intranet website and posted a blog asking who would be interested in a company canoe trip and named himself the POC (Point of Contact.) Within 24 hours, department heads started asking him how he wanted to fund it. Then when he replied, “I thought we would just find a way for each person to pay out of pocket unless somebody could free up company funds for a type of team event.” It wasn’t long before eight departments gave funding to have a one-day canoe trip. He also put out a thank you mail to everyone who came. He also thanked the various department heads who helped fund the event.

Well, this event he organized had him meet with senior managers in his corporation. Before he knew it, he was promoted to department lead in his company.

2. Why this example is important:

When I started in Project Management, my company gave me a mentor. He explained how his manager didn’t wish to promote him to a Project Management position. So he started volunteering to do small things to get his name known by his manager’s leaders. His jobs weren’t as large-scale as the one who organized the canoe trip, but his name was there. It wasn’t long before his manager’s leaders asked why he was not yet a Project Manager. 


All in all, the most important thing is to ensure not only your management but everyone in your team sees you in a positive light. In addition, ensure you stand out positively amongst your peers, as leaders have people who voluntarily follow them.

In addition, make sure people outside your team see you in a positive light. Get to know the people around you and above you.

Follow the example of the man who gave credit to others to show he listened by pointing out a person did their job. Be honest about it, not just to put yourself in a good light, but to let the others in your team look good. Remember, a good leader is as good as the people they lead.


  • Ken Tillery

    Ken holds a Master of Science in Global Management and currently works as a Global Project Manager and has worked as a Global Service Delivery Manager. Ken spent the last 15 years leading globally dispersed teams with team members located in multiple countries. Has also given classes on how to deal with cultural differences and related issues when working with project teams with members located across borders and continents.