Microleadership, like microblogging or microfinance, is a small-scale affair. Despite its modest impact, more microleadership is urgently needed.
Everyone creates a microleadership impact every day, often unintentionally. Whenever you influence a colleague to act or think differently, even on quite minor work issues, you show microleadership.
Whenever your comments in a meeting influence the direction of the conversation, even imperceptibly, microleadership is shown. You can show such small-scale leadership to your boss as well as your colleagues by influencing them to think or act differently on any work issue.
Microleadership is everywhere and extremely important but we ignore it. We only have eyes for its super cousin: the larger-than-life person in charge of our team, department, organization or country. We thus disempower ourselves by thinking that we have to be a certain special kind of person to show leadership at all.
We need to empower ourselves by proactively exhibiting more microleadership. It’s simply a matter of moving any conversation forward by striving to have an impact on it.
Microleadership is not a daunting prospect because it doesn’t entail taking charge of people. At its most basic level, it doesn’t have to orchestrate or coordinate any complex actions. You can show it simply by influencing others to think differently or even to stop doing something.
The essence of microleadership is showing the way for others on an everyday basis, either by setting an example or by challenging the status quo.
Challenging the status quo doesn’t have to mean launching a revolution or putting your neck on the line. You can make a simple suggestion for approaching a task in a better way. If people adopt your idea, this is microleadership.
How Microleadership Works
Leading by example best illustrates microleadership, as it is simply a smarter way of working that is emulated by others. For instance, if you provide better service to customers than your colleagues and they adopt your approach, you have shown microleadership by example.
Crucially, leading by example doesn’t entail taking charge of people or explicitly directing their efforts. Indeed, you could lead by example without even realizing that others are following you. Further, your colleagues might not see you as their so-called “informal leader” either in the sense of being the main go-to person when the boss is not around.
You can thus show microleadership in two ways: by example or by suggesting a different way of working. As with all forms of leadership, however, it only exists when people follow. Otherwise, there is merely attempted leadership.
Microleadership relies on influence alone; you can’t make decisions for people or tell them what to do without formal authority over them. Formal positional leadership is a confusing mixture of decision-making and influence. A formal leader decides on a direction and influences people to implement it. The concept of autocratic leadership only applies to people with formal authority.
Microleadership isn’t about showing people how to do a task. That’s training or coaching. Rather, it challenges the status quo, seeking to influence people to change their ways in order to be more effective.
Challenging others need not be confrontational. It can be quite gentle; leading by example is not confrontational at all. A non-confrontational way of challenging others is to use quietly supportive questions, such as: “How would it work for you to do A instead of B?”
A vision isn’t necessary to show microleadership. Leading by example does not articulate a vision at all. Further, a small suggestion is simply a good idea, not nearly as grand or as long range as a vision.
To show microleadership, you must be able to influence people to change their ways. When you lead by example, content is king because it is simply WHAT you are doing that moves others. No influencing skills are required in this situation.
The skills required to persuade people verbally are totally situational. Some might be moved by quietly presented hard facts. Others might want a show of enthusiasm. On technical topics, you need to be credible. For nervous people, you need to be reassuring. There are NO universally valid influencing styles or traits.
The form of influence you need to use is relative to your audience’s receptivity, the type of action you are advocating and the magnitude of the change required. Microleadership is generally easier than anything larger in scale because it advocates changes that people can make easily and immediately.
Clearly, microleadership is nothing like micromanagement, which means being in charge of people and scrutinizing their work too closely.
When you go beyond influencing others to act and help them implement your proposal, you are putting on another hat: call it being a catalyst, facilitator, coach or manager but it is not leadership.
Leadership merely sells the tickets for the journey. When you lead by example, you are simply pointing the way, not helping people get there. Implementation does not call for leadership unless the tickets for the journey need reselling en route.
Microleadership is an act, an impact you have on people when they see the benefits of your proposal. It is not an ongoing role. You can either leave others to implement your idea on their own or you can help them get there. If you choose the second option, this means taking on a different role.
In order to account for leading by example, microleadership MUST stop at selling the tickets for the journey because that is all that leading by example does. However, YOU don’t have to stop there. You just need to recognize that you are wearing a different hat if you choose to facilitate the implementation of your idea.
Why We Don’t Show More Microleadership
To foster efficiency, organizations like employees to stick to their own jobs. Some employees will make helpful suggestions to colleagues who they see working ineffectively, but many feel it is not their place to say anything. That’s the boss’s job, they think.
Further, leadership is portrayed as an elite role that is closed to all but very special people. You have to have a vision, charisma and a spotless character to lead others, or so we are led to believe. We regard leaders as visionaries with magical insight into the future that most people lack.
We grant larger-than-life leaders a god-like status, not because that is what leadership is all about, but because we desperately want someone to save us, to give our lives meaning and to protect us from the unpleasant realities of our lives.
We want leaders who can take over where our parents left off. But this is abdication of responsibility on our part.
Letting go of deep dependencies is scary, so everyone needs to start showing more microleadership every day. This is like newly walking children taking small steps away from the safety of nearby parents.
Showing microleadership has all the benefits of achieving anything worthwhile: pride, self-respect, greater job engagement and career satisfaction. It’s simply a matter of taking the initiative to influence small improvements in the way people around you work.
The first step is to throw off the chains of larger-than-life leadership keeping you in your place, depending on others to be the leaders. Start by recognizing that everyone can show some small-scale leadership every day.