Ways to Lead when you don't have the Authority

by Vivian Mandala

There is a phrase in Ethics that I just learned, it’s called Levels of Abstraction. It deals with the Levels of Information within Computer Science, generally, but I think it’s a concept we can borrow for our purposes while digging into how one can lead when they feel they have no authority.

There are three levels at which we communicate:

  1. Object

  2. Experience

  3. Concept

As we go up the levels of abstraction, ideas increase and reality recedes.

At the foundation of the Levels of Abstraction we have the Object level, which deals with tangible material objects, many of which we can touch and pick up.

“Was the order of 5,000 pieces of ReBar delivered to the Wall St Jobsite?” is an example of an Object Level Abstraction. It exists whether we were there or not or whether we “believe” it to be true or not. This claim is substantiated by physical proof. Concrete, tangible and fact based.

Next is the Experiential Level Abstraction, where things start getting a little murky as interpretation muddies the water. “I feel down the stairs” is an experience that is abstracted by opinion. “I was pushed down the stairs” or “The spill on the stairwell made me fall down the stairs.” At the experience level, we talk about an experience that occurred as well as our interpretation of that experience. However, it is still very real to us, at least.

When two people talk about a common experience, (“I saw you fall down the stairs”) they refer to the same experience (falling down the stairs), but may have different feelings and/or interpretation about the same experience (pushed, bumped, slipped, self inflicted, etc). This is often a common source of interest and conflict, as we often expect others to have the same experiences as us.

The most Abstract of the three is Conceptual Level of Abstraction, when we talk about ideas and thoughts. These concepts include our beliefs, ethics and principles, among others. These are internal constructs that are abstract and are not based on reality, although we often mistake them to be.

Words are effectively little packets of meaning and, more often than not, feelings, by which we try to communicate. Concepts can be accepted or rejected by the listener, and are often interpreted differently by different people.

When I listen to your experience, I receive it as a concept and evaluate it based on my own experience. What I hear and understand as I unpack your little packet of meaning and/or feeling is often very different from the intended understanding.

When we communicate, much of what we say is conceptual, which is one reason why communication is so difficult. It’s also one of the reasons people have a hard time leading without the “Title of Leader,” but just as experiences and concepts are abstract, so are titles. They often mean different things to different people.

Unofficial leaders are found when “The Leader” can’t communicate with the “The Ones Working”. Any breakdown in communication is an opportunity to lead or Lead, depending on how you need to see it.

There is a story I’m sure you heard about three bricklayers. Each was asked what they were doing. The first one stated, “I’m doing my job, I’m laying bricks.”

The next “I’m putting up a wall.”

The third, “I’m building a cathedral.”

This illustrates the Experiential Level Abstraction perfectly. Physically they are all doing the exact same thing, how they interpret their role is what sets them apart from each other.

A true Leader, Teacher, Mentor and/or Guide is someone that can remove Ego or emotional attachment to Titles and Authority for the greater good of the goal, project, product or service. In my experience the leaders (there are always many many leaders in projects) are not the ones with the titles, but are often the glue that hold crews together and keep them focused on what they should be focused on.

There is no common background, ethnicity or schooling for real Leaders. The commonality is that they prioritize the Goal/Project/Crew over everything else. They know WHY they are there.

If, for example, like the 3rd bricklayer, they understand how this Project/Job fits into the larger scope for each person, organization, city, or society, they are able to reject a great deal of the emotional, psychological and physical noise that happens onsite. They don’t have time to waste, they are busy building a cathedral, building a career, a company, a movement, a city.

If you want to start building up the SKILL of Leading, it is a skill NOT a talent, I would strongly suggest to start looking in situations that already exist around you.

No one needs to give you anything that you don’t already have to be a leader, there isn’t a secret handshake to learn. You have the potential within you right now, you just have to be willing to do the work that it takes and step into situations.

This is what you need:

  1. Your desired outcome.

That’s it.

If what you are doing is laying down bricks, your motivation is pretty straight forward; as a Bricklayer you are trading time for money. It’s not in your best interest to lead in most cases because you aren’t paid to do that job and you just want to pick up the bricks and put them where they need to be. Motivation to lead will come when something jeopardizes your ability to lay bricks.

If you are building an excellent wall, you are motivated by craft so leading in the context of defining the abstract concept of what “good craftsmanship” looks like. This can be vital. Creating a base level of abstraction around fuzzy word choices is really where Wall Builders can shine in leadership, especially within crews. Pushing back against fuzzy wording and concepts often helps others think more deeply about what they are expecting. Leading may look like Teaching, Mentoring or Advocating. You can become the voice for your fellow Wall Builders and Bricklayers.

If you are building a cathedral your ability to lead unfolds. You are the motivators and glue that keeps everyone on the boat moving forward in rhythm. There are more Cathedral Builders within NYC Construction then there are Bricklayer, regardless of what people think. I’ve stood next to so many proud workers who understand the importance of their work and their ability to impact others up and down the chain of command. I have heard, “I built this city” often. And it’s true, they understand that each project impacts the city, regardless of how large or small.

A true craftsperson has the ability to command respect because they respect themselves and the work they do. A few months ago I was speaking to a General Laborer on one of the Mega-Sites. This man was not the Foreman or Super of Labor, he had just started. His pride in the work that he was doing was obvious.

In this mind he wasn’t sweeping floors and cleaning out mini’s, he was preventing hazards from coming onto his jobsite. He understood that without him there would be an infestation of rats, piles of fire hazards, tripping and falling hazards, and deliveries wouldn’t happen smoothly.

In his mind the reason the job continued to run was because of the work he was doing. And he’s absolutely correct. If you’ve ever been on a jobsite that wasn’t maintained at the base level, it bleeds money because of inefficiencies. Housekeeping and Labor is where the rubber hits the road and it sets the standard for the Trades and other work being performed.

These are very simplistic examples but I think you understand. Let’s take it out of the field and into a Construction office; are you

  1. Pushing papers or

  2. Building a project or

  3. Shaping the City

The above still apply.

It applies to everything.

Often the opportunity to lead is there, it’s how we present ourselves to OURSELVES that stops us from leading.

Assess the story you tell yourself about your role in the office, onsite and at home. Try to do so without judging. Are their opportunities to lead that you are turning away from because of how you view yourself?

There are no “right” answers and often time people get jammed up pretending to build a Cathedral they could care less about. If you are a Wall Builder, be a Wall Builder. If you are a Bricklayer, be a Bricklayer. But just be sure it’s YOU that’s choosing.

If you are a Bricklayer that dreams of building Cathedrals, I would suggest taking a strong, direct and hard look at the choices you have made that brought you to be a Bricklayer, but I will leave that for another post.

When it comes to leading, everyone can and should play the part when the opportunity arises, be sure you are aware enough to recognize the opportunity when it presents itself.

How do you see yourself? In the Comments below let me know if you see yourself as a Bricklayer, the Wall Builder or the Cathedral Builder.

And, more importantly, I’d love to hear if that’s where you’d like to stay; if you consciously choose this path for yourself? Or is fear holding you back?

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