I'm a college senior at an engineering school (Olin College, Boston MA), but I’ve found many management principles to be useful in my team projects and everyday life even though I'm not in the business world.

Usually when I’m on a project team, there is no identified ‘leader.’ The three or four of us are by default at the same level of authority, since we’re classmates. I’m wondering if you have any insight into how I can be a leader without being [i]the[/i] leader and help make the team experience more fun and effective.


bflynn's picture

[quote="cdoyle"]Usually when I’m on a project team, there is no identified ‘leader.’ The three or four of us are by default at the same level of authority, since we’re classmates. I’m wondering if you have any insight into how I can be a leader without being [i]the[/i] leader and help make the team experience more fun and effective.


Chris - my experience is that you can't. I spent my first year restraining my inner High D because I don't want to come across as pushy. All it did was create confusion in the team; we didn't have a leader. Our work showed it.

Last semester, I let it go and took charge. At our first meeting, I suggested that we needed a leader and they elected me. Amazingly, everyone relaxed and the quality of the work went through the roof. You have to remember the delicacy of the situation - your authority is only there because it was granted by your peers. You can suggest and recommend, but in the end, they have to decide.

As a leader, your job is to serve. Make sure you handle the admins-trivia first. Think ahead - reserve the room. Make sure to get and distribute every one's contact information. Be the facilitator, not a participant. Your purpose is to serve the team.

Edited comment - I realized that I recommended not being a participant. In a school situation, you're still a student and still have to participate. Think of being leader as extra stuff you have to do. In return, you gain a small ability to have others accept your organization and delegation, but not much more.


SteveP's picture

Just a quote that may help you think about the issue:

[b][i]“Leaders will be those who empower others …. Empowering leadership means brining out the energy and capabilities people have and getting them to work together in a way they wouldn’t do otherwise.” [/i][/b]

Bill Gates in Entrepreneur.

cdoyle's picture

Thanks Steve, that's a great start.

It reminded me of an exercise in which I participated once that was incredibly valuable in this sort of situation. Before starting a team project, the team had a 2-hour discussion about our goals and expectations for the project, and what individual strengths and weaknesses we brought to the team. We were able to use that information to make the experience much more enjoyable and effective by simply avoiding people's weaknesses and playing upon their strengths.

Mark's picture
Admin Role Badge


Sorry I haven't replied sooner. Periodically, I try to let others speak up... sometimes, when I post first, there's less diversity of thought.

I have two suggestions, which may sound contradictory, but I don't intend them as such.

First, you CAN be a leader without being THE leader. Leaders think about effectiveness, and accomplishing things. So, if you're not THE leader, but are just part of the, engage in leader-like behaviors. Show up early. Stay late. Contribute MORE than your fair share, so that if everyone behaved as you did, every project would be a breeze. (And then, don't go back to the dorm and bitch to your roommate about your team). Offer to help others, to a fault, even if you feel like you're doing their work. Trust me, everyone notices, and the shirker will get what's coming to them. Be kind to others. Praise them when they contribute. Allow others to have their way sometimes. Think about how to be GREASE in the discussions, rather than ONLY thinking about being right or getting DONE. Be a team player. Use "and" as opposed to "but." Politely remind the group about time sensitivities, and deadlines. If you want to ask more of someone, do it in private. Praise them in public. Don't raise your voice.

If you do these things, I submit that many of your teams Will begin to MAKE you their leader from the outset. (And just by doing the above, you'll do better and make the team better).

If there is another leader, even unofficially, or assumed, try to help him or her. Despite their bravado or apparent confidence, they're often fearful. When they do well, say thanks. When they stumble, forgive them. When you disagree, make a suggestion about a different path, rather than saying they're wrong. Don't engage in private character assassinations over beers without the leader there afterwards. If others do that, excuse yourself.

When they DO make you the leader, all the same applies, and then some administrivia is surprisingly helpful. Make sure you spend time getting to know one another- ask that it be done before you get busy, and be quietly insistent about it over objections. Start and stop on time, even if only one other person is there. Ask for verbal commitments from individuals, and make notes. Be nice when you point out that someone is 3 weeks behind.

If you had done that when I was in school, I'd have carried your books to our project meetings!


Mark's picture
Admin Role Badge

And hey!

Brian and Steve - well done and thanks!


Todd G's picture


I too am in your shoes right now. After reviewing the DISC podcast and printing the material out. I am genuinely a High I with the D component. I want to make sure the project is complete and I do encourage others to become involved.

Mark is right when he stated "You can be the leader without being the leader." I also think it's all a matter of what leadership trait you are focused on or utilize in your daily life/habits. I have the tendancy to be in the "Trait Approach".

Keep us posted on how things are going. My on-line program is excellent so far.


Nik's picture

Think also about how you can be an active facilitator rather than the authoritative leader. I often found myself being the "task Nazi" among my peers in b-school, because I was the one keeping the list of what needed to get done and who had agreed to do it. However, I didn't suggest that I was in charge, I simply helped keep folks on track. This ensured success without the need to elevate someone to "boss" status.