When Leadership Is Not About Leading

It happens. And if it is not happening, you might not be leading effectively.

Tristan Denyer
4 min readOct 16, 2023
Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Leadership is a multifaceted concept that often conjures images of individuals confidently charting the course for their teams, inspiring them to reach new heights. While this traditional view of leadership holds true in many scenarios, there are instances where leadership takes on a different form. In fact, effective leadership can sometimes mean momentarily stepping back from the forefront and allowing others to step in, and shine.

Here are some times I learned when leadership is not about leading in the traditional sense, and why it’s a crucial aspect of being an effective manager.

The Collaborative Approach

Effective leaders understand that leadership is not a solo act but a collaborative endeavor. They recognize that their role isn’t solely about taking charge and directing every aspect of a project or team. Instead, it involves fostering an environment where team members can contribute their skills, ideas, and expertise to achieve common goals. Three ways this collaborative effort happens:

Empowerment: Leading by getting out of the way

True leadership often means empowering team members to make decisions and take ownership of their work. It’s about trusting your team’s abilities and allowing them the autonomy to execute tasks and solve problems independently.

Delegation: Leading by giving it away

Effective leaders understand the value of delegation. They know that they don’t have to be in control of every task or decision. Delegating responsibilities to team members not only relieves the leader’s burden but also allows team members to develop their skills and take on leadership roles themselves.

Support and guidance: Leading by finding the way

Leadership is about providing support and guidance when needed. Rather than dictating every step, leaders offer help, answer questions, and provide resources to facilitate the team’s progress.

Of note: where and when delegating is hard

Delegating is not always something that you can do right out of the gate with a new team, or you being new to leading. You need to build that two-way trust with the team, learn who you can delegate tasks to, and know the resources available around you. Be patient, and give yourself some time to get this right.

The Role of a Facilitator

In some situations, a leader’s primary role shifts from directing to facilitating. This shift is particularly evident in collaborative and cross-functional projects, where different experts come together to achieve a common goal. In such cases, leadership is about facilitating discussions, mediating conflicts, and ensuring that all voices are heard.

Active listening: Leading by being present

Effective leadership in facilitation involves active listening. It’s about giving team members the space to express their ideas and concerns and ensuring that everyone feels valued and heard. It’s also about showing you are comprehending what they are saying.

Conflict resolution: Leading by being calm

Leadership is often required when conflicts arise within a team. Leaders act as mediators, helping team members find common ground and reach consensus, ensuring that conflicts do not hinder progress.

Decision-making support: Leading by being a guide

In collaborative settings, leaders may not make all the decisions. Instead, they guide the decision-making process, helping the team reach well-informed conclusions.

Of note: where and when facilitating is hard

If you have the skills, facilitating is something you can do right out of the gate. When it can get difficult, is if you are distracted, there is a gnarly conflict, or the team is also new and not yet up to speed. Jump into active listening, and ease into decision-making support.

Building a Leadership Pipeline

Another critical aspect of leadership that is not always about leading in the traditional sense is developing future leaders within your organization. Effective managers recognize the importance of building a leadership pipeline by identifying and nurturing talent. This often involves mentorship, coaching, and providing opportunities for skill development.

Mentoring: Sharing the lead

Mentoring emerging leaders is a vital leadership role. It’s about sharing knowledge, providing guidance, and helping mentees grow into leadership positions.

Coaching: Showing the lead

Effective leaders coach their team members, helping them identify their strengths and areas for improvement. Coaching is an essential component of leadership development.

Providing opportunities: Supplying the lead

Leadership is also about creating opportunities for team members to take on leadership roles. This might involve assigning them to lead projects, manage teams, or represent the organization in various capacities.

Of note: where and when building a pipeline is hard

The biggie for me has been when there is little to no support for you building a pipeline. Formalities, company culture, and other factors may hinder you doing this formally. Have patience, and tread lightly.

In Summary

Leadership is a dynamic concept that adapts to different situations and contexts. Effective leaders understand that leadership is not always about leading in the traditional sense of taking charge and directing every aspect of a project or team. Instead, it can involve empowering, facilitating, supporting, and developing others. By recognizing when leadership takes on these alternative forms, managers can foster a collaborative and empowering work environment that promotes growth, innovation, and success for both individuals and the organization as a whole.



Tristan Denyer

I am that unique blend of engineer and designer, leader and manager, team builder and bridge builder.