How to Lead Yourself When the Boss is Not Around

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work for an organization and not have a boss breathing down your neck?

Sure, everyone – even entrepreneurs and CEOs answer to someone. However, there are jobs that are so far down the deep end of the empowerment continuum that it feels like you’re on your own with little or no supervision. In many organizations and occupations, “management by walking around” and micromanagement have fell by the wayside, either by design or out of necessity. Organizations are flatter, spans of control have increased, and hundreds of thousands of employees now work from home.

I’m in one of those positions. I run Executive Development Programs at a large university. The search committee and the Dean told me they were looking for a self-starter that could work with a high degree of autonomy. They weren’t kidding.

While it might sound like a great deal, working independently offers its own set of challenges. After all, the role of “manager” must have been invented for a reason, right? As much as we like to complain about our managers, some of them – the ones who can actually lead – can be inspiring, motivational, and help us do more than we could have on our own. In the absence of that kind of leadership, it’s up to us to lead ourselves. Here are a few things I’ve learned about self-leadership that might work for you:

1. Have a clear set of values or principles.
That’s leadership 101, right? Well, it’s just as important to have a clear set of values when leading yourself as it is when leading others. It’s about making the right choice when no one’s watching.

2. Have an “ownership” mindset.
You run that little piece of the world like it’s your own business. It’s your balance sheet and income statement, and there’s no one to point fingers at if you make a mistake. Accountability is a must.

3. Develop a vision, set of 2-3 year goals, and actions plans.
Having goals is a habit I developed years ago and take it with me wherever I go. It’s a lot more energizing too when you get to create them because you want to, not because someone’s making you do it.

4. Develop measures.
Without a boss, you have to monitor your own performance. Objective, measurable performance indicators help prevent us from getting delusional about how good or bad we think we’re doing.

5. Develop an informal “Advisory Board”.
Identify a small group of stakeholders that can give you hard, honest feedback, will listen to your ideas, and offer great advice.

6. Cultivate strong relationships with your peers and other key stakeholders.
In the absence of direct supervision, peers can offer the support you need to get things done, collaborate on problems and opportunities, and offer encouragement. The strength of your peer relationships is also a strong indicator of your leadership potential; in the absence of direct observation, your manager will heavily weigh the observations of your peers and others.

7. Make sure there are “check and balances” in place.
When it comes to signing contracts, spending money, selecting vendors, hiring decisions, and anything where you could be exposed to allegations of favoritism, always review these decisions with someone else – even if you’re not required to. In the absence of a “the buck stops here” manager, you need to find someone else to play that role. It could be a hard-nosed peer, the CFO, HR, the company attorney, whatever – someone who’s willing to call you out if needed.

8. Keep your boss informed.
Your boss may not require or want regular meetings or updates – but do ‘em anyways. If you can’t get the regular meetings, then at least provide regular updates on key decisions, achievements, metrics, and a head’s up on any problems that might end up finding their way to your manager’s desk.

9. Stick to a schedule.
Disciplined time management is essential when you’re not punching the clock and no one’s watching. You values should be your guide here.

10. Celebrate your achievements.
Give yourself a pat on the back now and then. Brag to your spouse or friends. Keeping yourself motivated though positive recognition is just as important as kicking yourself in the rear when things go bad. Go ahead, take a bow.

How about you – anything to add?