You Don’t Need to Wait For Authority To Be a Leader at Your Company

BY Art Markman 3 MINUTE READ

It is tempting to look around the workplace and think about all the ways that you would do something differently if you were in charge. We quickly internalise the hierarchy within any organisation and assume that the ability to lead change requires being in a spot on the org chart with lots of people reporting to you.

And it is certainly easier to lead from a position of authority. When you have a role and title that marks you as being in a leadership role, then people are looking to you to help set the direction for the group. But the most important thing that comes along with a particular role is the ability to control how resources are used within the organisation.

In fact, it requires very little authority to lead.

The authority you have by virtue of a position grants you permission to give orders to other people. Since you were a young child, though, you know that “Because I said so!” is the worst reason for anyone to do anything. If you are relying solely on your authority to get other people to go along with you, then you aren’t really leading.

Instead, leadership is about creating motivation in the people around you to join in on something that you think is important. There are many ways to do that.


First, you want to lead by example. The force of goal contagion is powerful. When you see someone taking an action, you interpret what they are doing by simulating the goals you would be pursuing if you were doing the same thing. That leads to the engagement of the goals you observe others pursuing – making those goals contagious.

If you want to influence the goals of others, be visible in the actions you take by pursuing goals you think are important.


Second, you want to sow dissatisfaction. The energy people have to pursue a goal arises partly through the recognition of a gap between the present and a more desirable future. You can help to paint a picture for people of how a situation can be improved, which will give people the energy to act.

That means you need to become skilled at articulating the ways that your organisation can be improved. This has to go beyond complaining. A complaint focuses on the ways that the present situation is undesirable. The energising gap focuses on the ways that the future could be better.


Third, you want to lead upward. Leading isn’t (just) done by getting people below you on the status hierarchy to do your bidding. It also requires getting people who do have resource authority and decision-making power to go along with your belief about what needs to be done.

You need to communicate effectively about your observations about how important goals can be accomplished. The key is to do it in a way where you are allowing people who have higher-level positions to reach a decision about how to proceed, and to take ownership of that decision.

The downside to leading upward is that the people above you are likely to get more kudos than they deserve for your efforts. As Harry Truman once said, though, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” On top of that, leaders often remember who has helped them to find ways to achieve difficult tasks. So you might not get credit for all of your work, but (on the positive side) it may put you in a position to move upward in the hierarchy later, where you can get more credit than you deserve in the future.

About the author: Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and Founding Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organisations.

Originally published on fastcompany.com


This is when it’s actually good to be a pessimist

BY Art Markman 3 MINUTE READ

When you have concerns about the future, people often admonish you to look on the bright side and to find the silver lining inside that cloud. And pessimism can sometimes be debilitating, particularly if you become so convinced that you cannot succeed at some venture that you stop trying.

But, your ability to see the negative might actually be really valuable for you if you use it right. Here’s how.


When you plan for the future, it is critical to figure out what is going to go wrong before bad things happen. The more aware you are of the obstacles that barricade the road to success, the more effort you can put in to avoid them. You can enlist the support of other people to help you deal with potential problems when you reach out ahead of time.

If you start a project by convincing yourself that it has to succeed, then you will have to improvise in the face of each problem that comes up. Sometimes, you may succeed under pressure, but often, those obstacles create delays—some of which may kill a project.

Your inner pessimist is always trying to find reasons why a particular plan is going to fail. Don’t silence it. Just use that inner voice to generate the list of factors you need to deal with before you get started. You may just thank your inner pessimist later for playing a huge role in your success.


Another thing that your pessimistic tendencies do for you is to help you find ways that the world could be better. It is tempting to wallow in the list of things that could be improved and wish you had lived in some previous golden age when things were better.

But, those aspects of the world that can be improved are also opportunities. They represent issues that your efforts could actually rectify. Gabriele Oettingen has done great research demonstrating that when you contrast the present with some more desirable future (in this case, one that has fewer problems), you create energy to narrow that gap.

Use that energy to get together with other people to make progress fixing a problem you have seen. That does mean that you need to look for problems that you think your efforts can influence. That is, the gaps between present and future that are most likely to drive action are the ones you think can be bridged by your efforts.


Worst case, your low expectations for the future can set you up for happiness later. People often engage in defensive pessimism: you may assume that the road ahead of you is difficult and that you are unlikely to succeed.

Because you have concerns that you have not yet done a good enough job, the anxiety you create by focusing on bad outcomes may lead you to work longer and harder on a task than you would if you were more confident about the outcome. That extra effort may actually increase your chance of success.

In addition, when you set your expectations for the future low, you will often find yourself pleasantly surprised. A client is happier with a project than you expected. A customer orders more than you thought they would. An audience is more impressed with your talk than you anticipated. These pleasant surprises provide a nice reward for a job well done. So, your defensive pessimism may help you succeed at hard tasks and then help you to enjoy it more when you do.


Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and Founding Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations.

Originally published on fastcompany.com