Leading without authority: The key to success in a matrix organisation?

Philippa Thomas thinks the best leaders lead laterally.

Matrix-style management structures have grown in popularity, with 90% of Fortune and FTSE organisations recently reported as working in ‘some kind of matrix’ [1]. The strategic benefits are evident.

By breaking down geographic and functional silos, a matrix structure can help an organisation become more flexible and responsive to its markets, use its resources more efficiently and better leverage its talent pool.

Matrix organisations typically operate in cross-functional project teams, often involving outsourced and/or offshored contractors, and other third parties.

It’s absolutely vital that people are not only able to collaborate in groups to get work done, but that they are effectively supported in doing so by a manager who is a skilled leader and able – amongst other things – to provide direction, set goals, communicate, influence, resolve conflicts and develop people’s performance. And do so wherever team members are located.

In a traditional matrix, a person would usually have two managers. One would be responsible for managing the person’s work (dotted line); the other would be responsible for managing the person’s performance and development (formal line).

It’s absolutely vital that people are not only able to collaborate in groups to get work done, but that they are effectively supported in doing so by a manager who is a skilled leader and able

Unfortunately, flat matrix-style organisational structures often mean that fewer managers are available to assume these roles, so the ones that are available can quickly become over-stretched.

For example, in some organisations, it’s not uncommon for managers to be leading multiple global project teams, spanning three time zones, with 60+ formal and dotted reporting lines – a tall order! In others, the reporting lines have become so blurred that people aren’t quite sure who manages them, or even what their job role is.

People working in matrix organisations frequently report that in their experience ‘on the ground’, leadership can be either inadequate or absent, their biggest complaint being a lack of management accountability.

The results are that projects suffer from delays, productivity levels drop, stress levels increase, and people become disengaged, which all undermines the strategic benefits of the matrix structure.

So, what’s the solution? The simple answer would be to recruit more managers with leadership skills, which might indeed be the right decision in some situations. Alternatively, an organisation could look at unlocking the leadership potential which exists outside formal management hierarchies to fill the vacuum.

The need for organisations to employ people who can lead laterally from anywhere is greater than ever.


It’s worth taking a moment to revisit what ‘leadership’ is. When you ask people to describe a leader, they often refer to a well-known, charismatic, courageous individual in a high-profile position of authority. However, the dictionary definition of the verb ‘to lead’ is subtly different from that of the noun ‘leader’. ‘To lead’ means to ‘show someone the way to a destination by preceding or accompanying them’.

Leading is therefore not about power or command over a group, per se. It’s about enabling the group to reach a goal, sometimes at the head of the group but sometimes as a team member. Whilst leadership can and must coexist with any position of formal authority, it should no way depend on it.

Any group of people who wants to achieve anything has need of a leader. And literally anyone can be that leader, if they have the right skills and qualities.

This ability to lead laterally has its roots in a willingness to take personal responsibility for resolving a problem, and a mindset which has the courage to challenge the status quo constructively, presenting one’s own ideas for doing things better whilst at the same time being generous in supporting team members.

When a person leads laterally, people follow them not because of their authority, but because of who they are, what they stand for and most importantly, what they see them do. Whatever the limits are on a person’s organisational authority, when they possess this mindset and qualities, they have the potential to take the lead in virtually any work situation.

The purpose of lateral leadership is ultimately quite simple. It’s to improve the way people collaborate in a task to achieve high quality results that benefit the team. It’s not about enhancing personal power or self-promotion.

It’s using a particular set of skills to get things done with others, when you have no direct authority over them. These skills include influencing, negotiating, facilitating, networking, collaborating and building coalitions.

And they can all be developed from a strategic decision to lay solid foundations for operating successfully in a matrix structure, freeing up formal management time and establishing an empowering approach to delivering the work.

It’s true that not everyone can make the transition to become a great lateral leader. But many can. This ability to lead a team without direct authority is one of the most important “soft skills” that a matrix organisation can invest in developing. It can also be transformational for the company’s culture.

In the next article, we will look at things you can do to develop your own lateral leadership skills.


About the author

Philippa Thomas is managing director of Skills Shift.


[1] Global Integration Ltd (2017) “Matrix Management: beyond structure to winning ways of working”, p.2


Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *