How to demonstrate leadership when you are not the boss and the company is not a traditional startup?

So, I have been working at a company that is small but old (around 25 employees). Basically, the company was founded many years ago and got stuck in a niche market. But there is a new product that we started selling and it has a huge potential (it has patents and clients are impressed). There are two groups in the company, one that my boss is part of and consists of some old folks from this first generation and they are pretty much "settled" - they have been working for the company for many years, never got good raises or mentorship and at the same time they were never asked for goals either, so they just work for a paycheck. Some people even started businesses on the side. The second group is the new folks who are younger, motivated and we are pushing this new product really well. I'm working very close to the product manager and he really likes my work. I'm not junior but I'm not also a manager, but I really wanted to demonstrate leadership as I already know more than my boss (he is sort of a marketing manager / general manager). He has a good relationship with me and I don't to screw that up, but at the same time he doesn't care much about my development and he gives me work to do that should be done by interns (like filling documents or making updates on the website). The product manager already wants me on his team to work full-time as a product designer / front-end developer. I also developed respect from other developers, I have this unique skill in the company which is the understanding of front-end, design, and human behavior. Everybody likes me, but I don't want to be seen as the "nice guy", sometimes I actually think I'm too nice. The owner is true decision-maker and he has a good relationship with my boss who has been working at the company for 10 years. So, I'm basically thinking on ways that I can demonstrate leadership to expose me to the owner, such as doing hackathons, or special projects like something for business intelligence, but I really don't know what would have the highest impact. On the other side, I can do things such as changing design process, usability studies, and a lot of things that will improve my knowledge, but might not get exposure and that might never lead me to management. I understand that from a business perspective what makes employees valuable is what kind of value that they bring to the company, so I'm thinking how I can do something that it will truly expose me as a leader? Note: we are not data driven, so many things are decided on feeling. Unfortunately, I don't have natural leadership skills mostly because of my disability - I have ADHD and I struggle with oral communication). I'm also not an English native speaker, but I improved a lot recently because I was coached by a previous manager at another company that I worked for. I also started taking medication which improved my speech glitches a lot (I used to forget words all the time and get nervous), now it's much better, but I still have some baggage - years of low self-confidence behaviors that shaped my personality.


I think you may be using the word "leadership" with a different meaning. You seem like a go-getter and a potential high performer (do more, do it very well, do things beyond what's expected of you), but these are different than a leader (inspire other people, set direction and governance) or a manager (optimize resources use, human or otherwise)

A low-risk, good way to grow and stretch your talent, comfort zone and how people perceive you is to take on special projects. Ideally special projects that will lead to new products and new roles down the line, that way if you perform there is a natural transition towards the new role.

The reality though is that a company of 25 employees and a culture such as the one you describe may simply not be one where growth opportunities abound.

Answered 9 years ago

Hello there ~ Thanks for your question.
Being a leader isn't just about the title you have in the company. It's about how you show up: doing great work, being a person of your word (do what you say you're going to do), and showing initiative above and beyond what is expected of you.

If you're looking to expand your visibility as a leader, here are 4 keys to keep in mind:

1. Identify what your natural leadership style and strengths are and work towards expanding the use of those strengths.

2. Keep your eyes and ears open to see where there are challenges/opportunities in the organization that your natural skills can be assistance with and begin to take initiative to help solve those issues.

3. Speak with your manager/boss to find out what areas they need your help with and how you can grow your skills to assist in those areas to further expand the success of your team/organization.

4. Ask for what you need. If you don't feel challenged enough by your work, then ask for additional assignments that will expand your skill sets and allow you to be of greater assistance to the team.

Bottom line: It's about being a positive force for good in an organization by asking questions, taking the lead even when it's hard or uncomfortable, and developing trust and collaboration among your colleagues. Inspiring others along the way as you help the team to move the ball forward.

If you'd like to talk further, we can schedule a time to speak to see how you can further expand your leadership capacity and increase your career success.
Kind regards,
Michele Molitor

Answered 9 years ago

I think you used the word leadership just fine. In most professional settings, leadership is a de facto title for those in management roles. Unfortunately most management roles go to people with experience in the company not leadership in the company necessarily. You seem to be playing on the spectrum of servant leadership where people know you are capable, you are liked and given opportunities to shine. What you need to do is become limited. If possible refrain from always saying yes, ask for certain deliverables and based on that decide if you want to say yes or no. If something is too time consuming I would say no if i have other work at hand. Work with others if you do take a responsibility and ask for help even if you don't need it. As you get others to help you find ways to share insights with others so that little by little you become an expert contributor in your office thus growing in value.

The thing about leadership is that people don't know what it means. When I interview, i ask, those who say they want to be leaders in our organization, what do you mean? Most don't have a clue. Leadership is like gravity, we use it to explain why an apple falls to the ground is just what we call doesnt explain the mechanics, the why or how...

When you think of leadership don't think of it as the all supreme magical authority of everything. Focus on a niche, what are you good at, what does the department need help in? You can be a leader in a project or a leader in mathematics in a school or a group.

See it this way:
Leadership in _______ = Expert known for and trusted in _________ (this is the path to management in or out that company)

Truth be told is that we always think we deserve that one up job, we deserve more pay, etc. Sometimes is true sometimes is not, but the fact that you want to move up the ladder is all that you need. If you see no potential for growth take your skillsets to another company.

Answered 9 years ago

One suggestion I have for you is improve communication and leadership skills by joining a local Toastmasters club ( Use the Find a Club tab. This may not help with your immediate work situation but in the long run it will definitely help with your confidence building. Besides improving your communication skills there's a world of opportunities in Toastmasters to grow your leadership skills. It certainly worked for me. I was promoted in a prior job as a direct result of my participating in Toastmasters; being able to communicate and lead more confidently lead my promotion. Re. your current work situation, perhaps you can have a 1 on 1 with your boss and see what type of projects are available that can give you the kind of visibility you're looking for. Be careful of taking on your own projects on company time... It may not be what the boss wants to pay you for. Though if you do choose to go ahead and "create" something you deem useful, be sure it's not the detriment of your assigned work. Have any questions about Toastmasters or otherwise, please let me know.

Answered 9 years ago

First, let me commend you for taking the initiative to help develop your potential as a leader. I've worked to help at former employees get promoted on their job within 3 months by walking them through strategic and developmental outlines to move their career ahead. I've trained countless employees in their job duties and shown them ways to improve there skills and complete task more efficiently. After reading your question and concerns, my wheels begin spinning, so I'll share as much as possible in this reply.

First, ensure you have a clear understanding of the difference between a leader and a manager as it pertains to this company. Leaders have the ability to influence another's actions, thoughts, and behaviors. Leaders initiate, give guidance, direction, and empowerment, while a manager is a person responsible for controlling or administering all or part of a company or similar organization. You don't have to hold a managerial position be to a leader, you simply need the ability to influence. Secondly, clearly define your ultimate goal within the organization. Based on the information you provided you should see yourself as an influential employee working toward a managerial position. This will position you to enhance your career within, or even outside the company by focusing on self development while learning the business.

Here are a list of tactics you can follow:
1.) Be dedicated to every task you are given, even if you feel it is outside of your job description. Do more than you are asked to. This will show you can be trusted to get a job done in excellence. Often leaders and managers will give potential prodigies task to see how they will handle them. Don't discredit any task. You never know who's watching.

2.) Develop a leadership work ethic: volunteer for task, be the first to arrive and the last to leave (when time allots based on your work schedule), help other employees when you can, ask to learn new task or information that pertains to the operation of the business or products, offer insight and input when asked or needed. Have an owners mentality and a servant work ethic.

3.) Invest in your personal growth and development. Identify your strengths and weaknesses. Continue to develop and mature in your strengths, and invest in the areas you pin point as your weaknesses. You specifically mentioned having ADHD, speaking "glitches", and low self-esteem. First, don't think of those as disqualifies or barriers. You actually identified your core weaknesses, so you are one step ahead. I would recommend finding a local group, such as Toastmasters (, to assist you with focus, public speaking and presentations, and also with boosting your self-esteem.

4.) Continue to develop your relationship and rapport with the owner, manager and other employees. Honor the disposition of those over you by showing you respect them in their roles and show interest in their expertise. Also seek relationships with other leaders or managers outside of your organization and become a student of them.

I hope this begins to point you in the right direction. Generally reaching your goal in this area will take ongoing strategy and coaching, but it is certainly doable. I would love to chat with you and would like to schedule a call to follow up with any additional questions you may have.

I look forward to assisting you in climbing your career ladder,


Answered 8 years ago

People are natural followers, we are hard wired for this. Often times I found myself in this situation of leading even when situations have not had a "need a leader" scenario. Knowledge of your business and product inside and out will be a foundation for you taking this stance as a leader. Become the "go-to" person on numerous topics. A leader is someone who can influence others to not only drink the kool-aid they're serving but in turn, end up brewing the kool-aid themselves.

Dive deep into the fine details of your company and speaking about it will become second nature for you. Once you have gained that respect your opinion will become needed and you can influence the staff around you to follow your lead on basically anything. Remember to never be negative in front of people.

Answered 8 years ago

Thank you for the level of detail you provide in your question - this helps a lot in answering it. I would say that you act "as if". Every morning when you wake up, tell yourself that you are already in this leadership/management role you want. Almost like you are wearing an invisible cloak when you enter your office. Once you are there, connect with your highest self: meaning act from your best heart-filled place. True leaders are generous and discerning. They used their energy wisely. Also, read "Give and Take" by Adam Grant. Good luck!

Answered 4 years ago

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