How to lead when you’re not the leader


Alex Budak, social entrepreneur, leadership expert and author of the Changemaker Toolkit, explains the concept of micro-leadership: how anyone, in any position can be a leader.

The story of leadership is often told through the lens of a single leader and a singular act – Martin Luther King rallying crowds at the Lincoln Memorial; Eleanor Roosevelt leading the creation of the declaration on human rights; Henry Kissinger setting foot in Beijing. As a result, we often conflate acts of leadership with positions of leadership.

This narrative, however, has obfuscated what it truly means to be a leader. Leadership is not something bestowed upon a person by virtue of a title or position, but rather the sum of a continuous series of opportunities in which a person consciously decides to display acts of leadership.

Leadership, then, is not a single act, but rather a continuous mindset to serve others. And it is therefore egalitarian – there is no requirement to wait until being anointed a leader, in order to be a leader. Rather, it is something each of us can choose to do every day through our own actions, whether we are an intern or a CEO; a parent or a child; a contractor or a client.

As Drew Dudley reminds us in his brilliant TED talk, “everyday leadership” – the informal acts of leadership – are often those that stick with us the most. And there is not a single constraint to performing these acts of leadership, except for our own self-limiting beliefs of what it means to be a leader.

The bravest act is to stand up and believe that each of us can be a leader. And how different the world appears when instead of looking for someone else to give us permission to lead, we instead are constantly looking for opportunities, ourselves, to be leaders – to serve someone else.

It’s this mindset I call the art of “micro-leadership” – when being a leader is decoupled from formal positions, and instead manifests itself in courageously pursuing small but meaningful acts of servant leadership, every day.

What does micro-leadership look like? Here are a few examples:

    • It’s asking a reticent teammate for their opinion when they have been quiet the whole meeting.
    • It’s responding with kindness when someone greets you with anger or fear.
    • It’s accepting responsibility even when it wasn’t your fault.
    • It’s sharing praise that was directed at you, with your teammates.
    • It’s being willing to say no when everyone else is saying yes, and being willing to say yes when everyone else is saying no.
    • It’s taking the time to thoughtfully share constructive feedback.
    • It’s asking the questions no one else will ask.
    • It’s arriving early to help set up, and staying late to help clean up.
    • A world filled with acts of micro-leadership is one where it’s possible for everyone to be a leader even without being the leader. It’s one where rather than the exceptional few, leaders are the exceptional many.


And it’s a world completely within our reach. All it takes is to stop waiting for someone to tell us we are the leader, and instead choose every day, through our own acts of micro-leadership, to be a leader.





  1. Very worthwhile read. I am looking for employment with a quality team where “unofficial” leadership is accepted. I don’t need appreciation as much as I need to be myself. Thanks. Janis Campbell