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