Graduate Blog / Graduate Life

On Leading Without Authority

Sunday afternoon marked the end of the three-day marathon that was the 10th Annual Babson Entrepreneurship Forum. The event, which featured nearly 70 speakers, panelists, and workshop leaders, has received praise from the Twitterverse, blogs, surveys, and face-to-face conversation. And it was run entirely by MBA students who were in the course of getting their MBA at the same time they put it all together. Quite a feat.

I was one of the three co-chairs in charge of the event, but I’d be vastly overstating my importance if I claimed to have had much effect on the awesomeness of the outcome. Our team, which consisted of 39 individuals at its high water mark, made this unbelievable weekend happen in a massive group effort. And it’s that team, or rather the management of that team, that I’d like to talk about today.

At the outset, managing my part of the forum team was incredibly uncomfortable. It’s an odd feeling when you start telling your peers, who’ve gone through exactly the same curriculum you have, and who may have more experience than you, and over whom you have no authority whatsoever, what to do.

So my approach through most of the seven-month planning process was to let people do things their own way. “They’re volunteers,” I reminded myself. “Don’t micro-manage them. Give them room or they’ll just walk away. They don’t have to be here and who the hell are you to tell them otherwise?”

I assumed that most people are self-starters who will set their own vision and move it forward. This backfired. Miserably. For four and a half months. Towards the end of the summer, it was apparent that my approach was not working. Things were consistently overdue, my team had no cohesive strategy whatsoever, and it was starting to affect what other teams could accomplish.

My kneejerk reaction to the situation was even worse: I wound up taking some of the team’s work on myself in an attempt to move forward, which only aggravated the team members who did feel a sense of ownership over their work, but hadn’t received what they needed from me to get it done.

In retrospect, it seems obvious. Most people – myself included – would much rather receive instruction than take control. In my scramble to maintain equality, I had gone to the extreme opposite of micro-management.

In the context of the forum, this realization came too late. My ineffective management bombed most of the working relationships, and my other co-chairs and my team itself started moving around me to deliver direction and get answers.

So I’ve reached an obvious conclusion to my now-obvious problem. It’s simple and terrible, but I think I’m on to something all the same: the best way to lead without authority is to overstep your bounds. If you try to avoid resentment by giving people too much latitude, you’re missing the point. People need and expect instruction when they’re working under you, regardless of whether or not you’re peers outside the organization.

This does not make them your subordinates in the real world. This does not in any way negate their experience, expertise, age, wisdom, or anything else they may bring to the table. The reality is that when you’re a leader, you have to set direction or the wheels come right the hell off. It doesn’t matter if you view yourself as a leader; what matters is that they already do if they’re voluntarily working on a team you’re in charge of.

For me, this is a frightening proposition. I have drive and a desire to excel and everything else any run-of-the-mill MBA student may have, but that also means I’m constantly trying to remain humble. It’s something I work on every day, so the idea of telling my peers what to do, and how to do it, is frightening. But in the end, if you’re not comfortable with leading, don’t seek leadership positions.

Otherwise, acknowledge who you are in the appropriate context and just lead.