MANAGING without a title: People learn from what leaders do and not what they say

By | Suman Sasmal

The Background

If supervisors in a company were asked to take their job titles off, and were hypothetically asked to work with very similar teams in a different company and deliver similar results – how do you think their performance would be?   I know many of you may be in agreement that many such leaders would fail to deliver at the same levels! Isn’t that an awkward situation! Practically it gives a feeling that ‘I do not know who I am and I need the prop of a Job title’. This is no doubt a challenging scenario, with the pyramid on the verge getting collapsed resulting in a loss of several identities. Before that happens, it would be good to go through a deeper introspection about how rich he or she is with leadership quotient. Essentially, how can one create spectacular results catapulting the organization above the mediocrity, awaken the inner leader within?  There are many literature and artifacts available on the Nevertheless, considering the gravity of the topic under the present context, where most of the things are getting either uncertain or unstructured, I have shared my observations in different organizations to elaborate the subject. This write-up is an attempt to highlight some practical insights on leadership based on the experiences of a practitioner.

            Conventional Pyramid                                      Redesigned Team

The Challenge

Many managers simply use the power of their hierarchical position to get things done. Such teams deliver in a specific organizational construct and would do alright if they are not required to think or stretch. However, tasks are seldom standardized or follow-the-routine any more. Today, it is imperative for the managers to explore and resolve the situations that lie beyond the routine. Intellect, innovation, insight have to work in tandem. That is what some companies mention in their tagline ‘Experience Certainty’ or ‘Powered by intellect and Driven by values’. Thanks to the stellar growth of technology, the invisible gaps in the past have now become very visible and highly accountable. Now, decisions are focused on facts, data and figures. Dualities of agility and stability, experience and experimentation, discipline and spirit-of-start-up, algorithm and ethics are all playing out on the same plane at the same time. These are major paradigm shifts.
Mass customization and n=1 are driving work in smaller teams and pushing for increased need for innovation. The need is innovation and how we can make it an everyday, everybody and everywhere item. When daily innovation becomes the name of the game, the inputs and outcomes are not clearly defined.  Such situations are more prevalent with the rising incidences of disruptive technology. With innovation leading the organization, it is imperative that leaders adopt a top-down approach and lead the change from the front. This is where the traditional pattern of leadership struggles to deliver.

Moreover, the world is flattening by the day and so are our societal structures. The societal hierarchy is disappearing fast with everyone becoming a member of just social clubs like Facebook & Whatsapp. It’s a great leveler and has an impact on organizational hierarchy as well. The hierarchical leadership therefore is no longer dominant and is getting substituted by one that is collaborative, motivational and visionary. Telling isn’t effective any more, the new approach is in Show & Tell.  In other words, just being a good communicator means nothing, on the other hand being with the people, standing by their side and showing them about ‘how to’ rather than ‘what to’ counts a lot. However, the mindset has to change.

Back in the early 90s, I bagged multiple orders for IT training from the staff association of a leading PSU bank located in Cuttack. When I went and met my customer – the staff association leader, I felt my job title, rank and position would be of no use to him. Company brand counted a lot but then, there were equal players in the fray – so why should they take me? I only had to position myself in his ‘DNA’ to win his confidence, particularly at a time when ‘staff union and computers’ were not on favorable terms. Of course, business talks were there but the body chemistry had to match first. Therefore, I got off the ladder of position, set my feet on the ground and acted naturally.

In this new paradigm, the position in the hierarchy is a weak link. It’s the natural influence that a leader has on the team, which counts the most. India’s great leader, NR Narayana Murthy believed in leading by example. He gave out subtle messages to all in the company by doing simple things.  For example, there was no question of “entitlement” for anyone in the company. Now, he could have said this standing in a Town Hall, but he chose to do it by simply standing in the canteen queue often, paying for the meal and eating the same food with everyone. We learnt those leadership basics from him, that is etched forever.

The Learning Concept Reference

Both structured and unstructured learning have helped me personally. The basic literature on leadership had always focused on visioning and motivational aspects of leadership. Having worked in the knowledge industry for over 30 years, it was not too difficult to appreciate how critically important was leading by example. At the end of the day, people learn from what leaders do and not what they say. The conventional courses in leadership provide good pointers and foundational concepts, however, one needs that moment of realization to make that real change. 

So, how do we motivate a team so that they perform without being pushed, when the team leader is not carrying a job title? How can we steer and direct the team towards success? And no one would be telling them either, what they should do on a daily basis. That subtle inner voice has to prompt “let me go for it”. What matters the most is – what they do, when no one is watching them.

One of the things I practiced as a Business leader was not to exercise the hierarchy consciously. When I visited any office location in another city, a common practice was the local HR person would arrange for a Town Hall meeting. And they would typically push everyone to fill up the Hall, so that it looked good for everyone. I told them one thing and they never followed the conventional practice thereafter. I simply said “ Do you have to push the people, if NRN was visiting this campus? If not, why? Because, people felt it was NRN who made the Town Hall meeting valuable and worthwhile for the crowd. So, why it should be any different for anyone?  It is my onus to make it valuable and worthwhile and people have the right to reject it….. “  It is the value we deliver as leaders, count at the end.

The manager without title breaks the barrier and reaches the team and listen to their voice because, it is the source of new ideas, the root for risk taking and travelling that extra mile. Better results follow if we bother less about controlling teams; and think more about motivating, mentoring and guiding. Right directions are more important than controlling, particularly at the time of crisis when the team looks forward to it.

I used to work closely with a manager who was extremely competent when it came to Project delivery. However, she used to be both influencing and intimidating in her approach. I realized she believed leadership was all about control and that is what I needed to change. I took up the challenge to minimize her desire to control, while enhancing her intent to influence.


There is enough and more literature in management dealing with motivation, leadership style, team engagement, and so on. I have relied on a few basic principles of leadership and they have helped me immensely to lead by influence. And I have never had to use my position or job title to get things done. What I did to bring in change in the lady colleague I talked about. There was no formal framework. It was just a natural process, the way I believe it should be. I did not preach or lecture. I sought to lead by example and hoped that she would learn from this. 

The very first resolution: how to make the team your friend! And this is not by spending more time in formal team meetings. I did it by spending informal time (investment) trying to genuinely understand the person and her likes and dislikes,  aspirations and challenges. And I took out any feeling from my mind that I was their manager. I would approach such meeting as an individual meeting another, and that I am with them and responsible for their success, their aspirations and accountable for outcomes. The primary objective was to reach a level of comfort, first with the person and then with the professional. This helped build an emotional connect right up-front and a relationship got established, that was long term. These were not transactional or short-term, as I believe relationships are what you do, when you are not looking for any help…!  In an era where global economy is thriving upon contributions from services and human being is the sole resource for its performance, establishing cordial and friendly relationship with the resource people is very important.

Second, I started most discussions with the question why. As Simon Sinek says it in his book Start With Why, no one wants to be told what to do. It’s a soft form of insult to ignore the rational mind of human beings, especially if they are white collared. Giving the big picture and the context always helps, even if the worker is a technician or a daily-wage earner. Be it a tough project that the team needs to deliver or the policies that the management must implement. Very often, questions are not raised and answers not volunteered, as orders pass down the hierarchy at high speed without any checks. I would travel that extra mile to know the larger context so that the team can appreciate their involvement and commitment. I have been largely successful in doing so and such communication gives out an additional sense of purpose and importance. That would make a huge difference. The power of vision can do wonders. As best practices, I have led award-winning projects involving large teams where the purpose of the project was printed on a post-card and pinned-up on cubicles of every team member, as a daily reminder.

Third, beyond being natural and a friend of the team – there is no need to lecture around people for motivating them. I treat them as adults. I tell my team “It’s your career, it’s your life. You decide what you want and what your priorities are. Choices are yours”. I would guide them, help them identify their natural strengths, and where they are likely to deliver their best. The rest was left to them. They are all intelligent adults and very quickly learn how to take responsibility of their own career and life. Learning to take responsibility of their own career and life become a huge source of motivation and has really worked.

Moreover, they learnt from their leaders through observations. It was a slow but an assured process. It made an impact on my colleague and she was a much better influencer and rarely would need to invoke her positional power to get things done.


I have never had to use my title or use the position of hierarchy to influence the team at work or their behavior. I believe, today’s leadership is all about how much one can influence and what impact does one make. It’s not about leadership by control any more. Neither, it is valued by the size of the department one manages. Increasingly, the real contributors will be process owners and project leaders that are able to provide cross-functional leadership where the title doesn’t count. Give up the dream of holding on to the title and do not even bother to have a formal authority to do the job; doing the best work should be all that matters most.

Author Profile

Suman has been a software engineer, a business leader and social evangelist. 
A Mechanical Engineer from Jadvapur University, Kolkata and MBA from XLRI Jamshedpur, he has spent over 29 years in IT industry with leading companies in India, including Infosys. At Infosys he managed IT Service delivery for large business units involving 10000+ talents, been Global head of Quality and also as its Head of Bangalore Development Center.

He spent an year in social sector, as Managing Director – Asia for Wadhwani Foundation,  focused on developing entrepreneurship and vocational skills. Today he is an independent consultant and consulting for leading B-schools like IIM Bangalore and IISc, Dept of Management science. A thought leader and speaker at industry forums, he has visited reputed business schools as a guest faculty: Columbia University @ NYC, Fudan University @ Shanghai, IIM Kolkata, XLRI Jamshedpur, ISB Hyderabad, IIT Kharagpur among others. 


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