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Being a Leader When You're Not the Boss

Being a Leader When You're Not the Boss
Tatiana Rodriguez, MPH
August 24, 2020

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Editor’s note: This text-based course is an edited transcript of the webinar, Being a Leader When You're Not the Boss, presented by Tatiana Rodriguez, MPH.


Learning Outcomes

After this course, participants will be able to:

  • Name the five points on leading when you’re not the boss and how they impact your leadership.
  • Identify the four ways people tend to respond to internal & external expectations.
  • List the five Languages of Appreciation.


I came across a question that struck me and I wanted to share it with you: “It is easy to poke holes in something, but can you build something better in its place?” This stuck with me as I was thinking about our topic because it is easy to complain about an unreasonable boss, being overworked, and so on. However, it is not as easy to come up with a solution. To me, that is one of the true skills that a leader brings: being able to build something better than what is already in place. If you are taking this course, you have an interest in leadership. You may not be a boss today, but you could be one day.

I have a quote for you from Thomas Watson, who is a business leader: "Nothing so conclusively proves [a person's] ability to lead others as what [they] do on a day-to-day basis to lead [themselves]." I modified the original quote to be more gender-inclusive. Considering the first quote I shared, are there things that you are already doing to make situations better? What do you regularly do to lead yourself? I encourage you to pause and think. One thing I do on a daily basis is continue to learn. This will expand your knowledge and allow you to be open to new things. You may have come up with other things that you do to lead yourself. For me, I like to constantly level up my intelligence, patience, understanding, and the ability to take care of myself. These are the qualities of a strong leader.

Here is another quote from an unknown source: "Be the kind of leader that you would follow." I was recently completing a training about creating conditions where other people can thrive. The instructors said that leaders make other leaders better as a result of their presence, and that betterment lasts even in their absence. I find this to be a core value of mine in terms of investing in the next generation of leaders.

There are a lot of people that I admire and have inspired me. Take a minute and think about the people you admire. This can be on a personal level, a community level, at your workplace, and so on. Who do you admire? Think about why you admire them and how they have been influential in your life. What did they say, do, show, or display that brought your admiration for them? You will find that the things you admire in others are connected to parts that you have within yourself.

Power and Influence

Let's take a look at the concept of where power and influence come from. What are the sources? We can have a strong and positive influence over people, even without legitimate power, a formal title, or extensive experience. There will be people in your life that you have influence over, without any formal authority. This may happen for you as a parent, teacher, or assistant.

There are different ways to have formal power, as well as legitimate power. Legitimate power is the belief that a person has the right to make demands and expect others to be obedient because of their position. For example, the president of a nation has legitimate power that comes with their title, and they lose that power once they are no longer the president. However, you have true influence over someone when that power continues past their position. It is important for us to remember that even if we are not formally in charge, we still have influence within different areas of our lives. The main takeaway is that a position does not always equal leadership. Even if we are not in charge, you have to care about the people that you work with.

Five Points on Self-Leadership

For those of you working with children, this will be something that resonates with you. Figure 1 is a graphic showing the five points on self-leadership.

Figure 1. Five points of self-leadership.

The first one is about your relationship with your bosses or those that you report to in your workplace. The second one is about your teams. These are the people we have influence over because they report to us. The third one is about your clients that you provide services for. These could be parents, children, or students. We then have our peers and those who are at your level in your career path. All of these are connected by the relationship that you have with yourself. These do not have to be the only circles because many of you might have a family or are involved in community leadership. Thinking about these five points, let me ask you two questions: How do you lead? What are your relationships like?

When you think about your relationship with your boss, you typically think of the boss as the leader. Remember that you help, build, escalate, and create things within that relationship too. With your teams and the people that you serve (e.g., students, families, parents, grandparents), are there areas where you act as a leader? That could be providing some education or encouragement. How do you show up in the relationship with yourself? These are the concentrated areas that we are going to work on today.

I encourage you to take out a sheet of paper and answer these five circles. With your bosses, how well do you know them? Is there a relationship of respect? Are you bringing initiative to the table? Think about these things. Thinking about your teams or subordinates, how do these relationships connect and intersect? You will find that they are connected in a lot of different ways.

Take the time to also think about your gifts because you are a unique person who has never been made before and will never be made again. Ask yourself about what you bring that nobody else does. Think about how you benefit your workplace, team, and organization.

Thoughts, Actions and Blindspots

I also want to challenge you to think about if you have become complacent in some areas, which can happen to all of us when we get comfortable.  Maybe reading this today is going to encourage you to take on a new challenge, to learn a new skill, to explore a new activity at work, to apply a new concept, or to get creative in a different area. Part of being a leader is continuous growth. I want to focus on Thoughts, Actions, and Blind spots (TAB) as we consider these five areas of leadership.


With our thoughts, here is something I would like you to remember: If you want to be a mindful self leader, you have to monitor your own thoughts. You have to be aware that we control how we act on those thoughts. We have to consider our mindset and self-esteem when it comes to our thoughts and our reputation. Let’s dive into each one of these a little bit deeper.


Do you consider your mindset fixed or open? A fixed mindset is when we think that intelligence, creative ability, and talent are fixed at birth and cannot be significantly changed. An open mindset is about being curious, flexible, and youthful, no matter how old we are. It is also about being growth-focused, as author Liz Wiseman talks about in her book, Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work. Carol Dweck is the leader of mindset right now and authored a book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success if you are interested in reading more.

We want to have an open mindset. It is something everybody wants to have, but we sometimes forget to stay curious when things get difficult. Being youthful is about our mindset because it is referring to when people start out in their careers as young people. Initially, there is a lot of excitement and passion that can get diminished over time. It is about holding onto our rookie smarts, no matter how old we are. This leads to long-term results in our workplaces, and it enhances our leadership skills.


With self-esteem, consider this statement: I tend to treat others better than I treat myself. Do you agree with that? Think about why that is. Working with people of different age groups, I tend to find that the answer is yes. This is often true for a lot of people who are in service-oriented careers, such as education and therapy. For those of you working in early childhood positions, you are being of service. We have great hearts to serve, but we also have to make sure that we are taking care of ourselves.

Here is the definition of self-esteem from the American Psychological Association:

The degree to which the qualities and characteristics contained in one's self-concept are perceived to be positive. It reflects a person's physical self-image, view of his or her accomplishments and capabilities, and values and perceived success in living up to them, as well as the ways in which others view and respond to that person. The more positive the cumulative perception of these qualities and characteristics, the higher one's self-esteem. A reasonably high degree of self-esteem is considered an important ingredient of mental health, whereas low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness are common depressive symptoms.

I have come up with a shorter definition of self-esteem. It is my sense of worth and value and how much I like and appreciate myself. How much do you like and appreciate yourself? These are important concepts for us to be thinking about as we are developing self-leadership. I want to remind you that your worth does not decrease because of someone's inability to see your value. Things do not always work out, but that does not mean that we are any less worthy. Rejection does not feel good, but in leadership, resiliency, and understanding our value is important.

I want to share a quote by Jenika McDavitt, who is a photographer and psychologist: "Self-esteem is not a single internal thermometer." This means that we do not take one measurement and say, “That is my self-esteem score for the day.” In fact, she talks about self-esteem in three different areas. The first one is global self-esteem. We tend to think about self-esteem through how we feel about ourselves on a regular basis. Secondly, we have situational self-esteem. This is how you feel about yourself in a particular situation. How you feel about yourself at work can feel differently than how you feel at home or how you feel at a party, or how you might feel when you have to give a presentation or speak publicly in front of other people. Situational self-esteem can vary. Global self-esteem tends to be more stable, but things can change depending on the situation. The third type is task self-esteem. This is specific to the particular thing you are working on. It could be different when you are working with a child who has ADHD issues versus a child who is upset because they injured their knee. Different tasks make you feel different ways. You may feel great about working with a child in one area, but slightly more unsure of yourself in another.

Take a look at the photos in figure 2. I would like you to think about what word comes to mind as you look at each child.

Figure 2. Various children.

Hopefully, many words came to mind for you. It is not just words, but feelings may have come up as well. This is because I remember what it was like taking those images or being with those people. That may happen for you as you spend time with the kids at work, at home, or in your communities. 

Let's link self-esteem and those images together. Most children do not have self-esteem issues. When did self-esteem start to take a nosedive for us? It is almost always around the time that we start to feel judged by others. As people who work with young children, these are concepts that are important to be aware of in terms of our service provision and our leadership role.


Our fear of being judged by others has a lot to do with our concern for reputation. As human beings, we are wired to worry about our reputation. The definition of reputation is the estimation in which a person or thing is held, especially by the community or the public generally. How people see us and what they think about us is often determined by our words and by our actions. These are great things for you to keep in mind.


Actions are not just about words, including what we say and what we do not say. Actions also refers to our behavior. Our behaviors are not just what we do, but also about what we choose not to do. It is important for us to think about our actions in terms of our interactions in those five areas with our bosses, our teams, the people that we serve, our peers and with ourselves.


Johari Window

Blindspots are often not talked about. I want to teach you a concept called the Johari Window. This is a framework that two psychologists named Joseph Luft (Joe) and Harrington Ingham (Hari) came up with in the 1950s. This concept is going to teach us to understand blindspots. I want to warn you that it is not easy to hear other people tell us about the things we need to work on. This is not a feel-good activity in the moment, but it leads to fruitful relationships. People in leadership who apply these concepts have stronger teams and more effective communication. We are going to break it up into four sections, shown in Figure 14.

Figure 3. Johari Window.

We have the things that are known to us and others, as well as the things that are unknown to us and unknown to others. Each box produces a different combination. The first one is called the open arena, which includes things that are known to us and what we show the world. People know that I am an educator. I love to teach in the university, I love to do online trainings, and I love working with people. They know that I love to cook and I like going outside. Think about what is in your own open arena. Our reputation is in here too.

We then have the things that are known to me, but unknown to others. This is called the hidden realm. There are things that I do not openly share with everybody because of confidentiality, healthy boundaries, or other reasons. In a trusting relationship, I may start to share some of those things in time. The third one is the unknown arena. These are things that are unknown to me and others. For example, when I was working in the pediatric rehab department of a hospital, I did not know that I would be teaching in university. Unknown does not necessarily mean scary. Opportunities will come to us in the future that we were not aware of.

The last area is known to other people, but unknown to us. This area is where blindspots exist. This is where we are going to focus, but I wanted you to have the overall framework. There is an article called “The Top 10 Blindspots” from The number one most common blindspot is being afraid to ask for help. The second one is being insensitive of our own behavior and how it impacts others. The third one is having an “I know” attitude.

Action Steps

Now that you know how the Johari Window works and how it can help us to discover some blindspots you need to know how to apply the information to grow in your leadership skills. Here are some action steps that you can take:

  1. Begin to have open conversations about your blindspots with trusted people that have your back.
  2. This won’t be easy. It takes bravery & humility to work on ourselves & listen actively to others.
  3. Don’t defend yourself in these initial conversations or people will likely never open up again.
  4. Say thank you and give yourself time to think.

You want to start by having open conversations about your blindspots with trusted people that have your back. These people should have good intentions and honesty. You do not want to do this with someone that you are trying to impress, or with someone that you do not have a solid relationship with. That is why this process takes bravery and humility to even be willing to listen to other people talk about the things we need to work on.

One rule to remember is that you should not defend yourself. If you do, people will never open up again. You can say, “Thank you and I hear what you are saying. I am going to take that into consideration.” When you set up the conversation, you can let them know that you are going to listen, absorb, and think. You then want to make sure that you are giving yourself time to process. People who do this exercise sometimes feel the temptation to defend, but that is not the point of this activity. It is first to listen and take in and be able to grow in our blindspots.

The Four Tendencies

The next concept I want to talk about is the Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin. Gretchen Rubin’s research has found that people tend to respond in one of four ways to inner and outer expectations. Inner expectations are placed by ourselves, while outer expectations are placed by others. For example, your boss places an outer expectation on you and you place an inner expectation on yourself. Figure 3 shows that are four different kinds, which include an upholder, a questioner, an obliger, and a rebel.

Figure 4. The Four Tendencies.

An upholder meets inner and outer expectations easily, whether it is a deadline at work or making it to the gym. They do not have a hard time meeting expectations. A questioner meets inner expectations but resists outer expectations. They ask a lot of questions and can fulfill an outer expectation if it meets their internal expectations. An obliger tends to resist inner expectations but will meet and often exceed outer expectations. If somebody else wants it from them, they will do it. If it comes from themselves, it is probably going at the bottom of their list. A rebel resists both inner and outer expectations. By nature of an expectation, they meet it with resistance.

You can find interviews online from Gretchen Rubin about this concept, which can help in our relationships with the children we work with, as well as with our own families. Understanding these motivation types can help us because you will start to see how an upholder may have difficulty working with a rebel, who will have difficulty with a questioner. We are all different and it is important to start exploring these frameworks, patterns, and possibilities for the people in our professional and personal lives.

Here are the mottos that each tendency lives by:

  • Upholder: “Discipline is my freedom.” For a rebel that might feel like torture but an upholder loves structure, schedules, order, organization, and planning.
  • Questioner: “I’ll comply if you convince me why.” Being able to ask questions for a questioner is really important and if you can explain why they will be on board.
  • Obliger: “You can count on me and I’m counting on you to count on me.” Obligers need accountability to get things done for themselves.
  • Rebel: “You can't make me and neither can I.”

The Four Tendencies Strategies

What can we do when we are working with these different styles of people, especially if they are different from our own? For an upholder, remember that it is okay to question an expectation. Sometimes you are asked to fulfill a request that does not make sense. An upholder will feel a strong desire to do it because it is an expectation, but it is okay to question it or say no. For a questioner, one of the issues you might struggle with is analysis paralysis. They have so much information and so many questions. A helpful tip is to set a deadline and limit the number of sources that they need to make a decision. For example, they can give themselves five days to look up content and then make a decision. The number one strategy for an obliger is to find an accountability partner. Obligers make great accountability partners for other obligers. For a rebel, the strategy is to not force or not demand them. Instead, you can share the information and explore the possible consequences. Know that at the end of the day the choice is theirs.

I found it life-changing when I discovered my own style, which is an obliger, because it helped me understand so much. When I had a built-in accountability of working in a hospital, I never had any problem meeting anybody's expectations. That shifted when I became an entrepreneur and no longer had that accountability, but then had to be responsible for myself. Knowing that I needed external accountability was huge and made sense once I started digging deeper. I hope that you can glean some wisdom and knowledge for your own lives from this.

Five Languages of Appreciation

The next excellent concept I want to teach you is the Five Languages of Appreciation by Gary Chapman and Paul White, which stems from The Five Love Languages. The Five Languages of Appreciation are the same but are instead created for workplace environments. There are words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, gifts, and physical touch.

Words of Affirmation

Words of affirmation refers to the idea that actions do not always speak louder than words. There is power and strength in what we say to others and how we say it. It can be effective to hear, “I appreciate you. Thank you for a job well done.” If you are working with a child, you can say, “Good job today. I noticed you help the other kids.” Insults are particularly harmful for a person whose love language is words of affirmation. Appreciate them and praise them for accomplishments. Giving unsolicited compliments on a job well done, presenting handwritten notes whenever possible, and giving them phone calls or in-person conversations to express gratitude goes a long way. You can also recognize them publicly, but only if they are okay with public acknowledgement.

Quality Time

The second language is quality time. This person can benefit from full, undivided attention. Do not be on your phone or distracted. You can do this by going out or meeting up online for coffee. You can grab lunch together or have a regular one-on-one meeting scheduled.

Acts of Service

The next love language, acts of service, is about doing something to help another person. It can be helpful if you relieve some of their burden for them, especially if they are stressed out. Ask, “How can I help you and when would be the best time?” Offering to help them with a project is a great strategy. Lend a hand when you know that they are overwhelmed. This can include helping them rehearse a presentation and giving feedback.


The fourth love language is gifts, and this is not about money or being materialistic. This is about the thought and the effort behind the gift. People who appreciate gifts often have very few things around them. It can benefit those people by getting them a gift that is personalized. This can be a favorite drink, candy, or anything else they like. Surprising them with a small token goes a long way. If you have the ability, you can also give a gift that is handmade. You can buy or make any small, tangible item that shows them that they are being appreciated.

Physical Touch

The fifth language is physical touch, which is different in the workplace. In the book, the authors removed physical touch due to the possibility of inappropriate conduct.

However, we often work in jobs where we develop close relationships with people. We may hug or embrace, so I did not want to remove physical touch altogether. This is especially true when we work with children because physical touch often comes with the job. They need hand-holding or other forms of physical closeness within appropriate boundaries as part of their growth and development. This can mean high fives, fist bumps, and handshakes. For some people, that small touch can significantly express appreciation more than words.

Action Steps

If you want to learn more about this, here are some action steps:

  1. Take the free tests and read the books.
                a. quiz/
  2. Have your teams take the test.
  3. Talk about results.
  4. Understand them better. Start speaking to them in terms of their motivation and in languages they’ll appreciate.
  5. Enjoy awesome relationships. Not perfect, but awesome.

I provided links for these free tests. You can find out what your tendency is, as well as your top love languages. One clarification about the languages is that every reasonable person would agree that those five things express appreciation, love, and kindness. However, if my primary language is quality time and I keep receiving words of affirmations, I may not feel appreciated until I start to get that quality time. For example, if you know your boss and their primary language is gifts, then you want to make sure you are providing items to express your appreciation rather than just saying it. You want to speak in their love language, not in yours.

Let's say we were all on a team together and I wanted to show you how much I appreciate you by bringing everyone ice cream. I love coconut ice cream, so I bring everybody coconut ice cream. However, your favorite flavor might be chocolate mint chip, somebody else's may be vanilla, and another person may be lactose intolerant. If I took the time to learn about everyone’s preferences, then that would be received as true appreciation rather than me giving you what I like.

You can have team members and other people that you care about take these tests as well. Talk about the results together or do a team project together. If you have check-ins or personal development days, this could be a way to get to know each other. It is all related to exploring work and growing in your interpersonal communication. These are important things for us to discuss as teams, and you are then going to start to understand people better. We want to have better relationships, and that is what great leaders do.

Remember to have an open mindset and address our thoughts, actions, and blind spots. We are always working, growing, and thinking about ways to express our gratitude for our team members. We can then get to enjoy awesome relationships. Imagine being in a workplace where you are receiving appreciation in a way that is meaningful to you, and you are giving appreciation in ways that are meaningful to others.


If you are interested and you want to continue exploring, I have resources for you to check out. The books and articles that I mentioned are here as well.

Questions and Answers

Can you give us a couple of examples of what some blind spots might be for people?

I provided the article for the Top 10 Blindspots that found. Some examples that I have seen include people being explosive when they are angry. This goes into the category of not realizing how their behavior impacts others. Another blindspot is being compliant out of fear rather than out of inspiration and appreciation. People often want to hold onto legitimate power, but we are not doing our job as leaders if we force our colleagues to comply because we are their boss.

Another one is placing high expectations on others, especially if we have high expectations for ourselves. We can come across as inflexible. If a person has a rigid mindset and expects things to continue at a certain level, even when circumstances have changed, it can be discouraging to team members. Another blindspot is admitting mistakes. When we dig deeper, that is often a pride issue. When we make it unsafe to apologize, it can become a difficult and toxic workplace. You want to say, “I am sorry, what I did was wrong. Will you please forgive me?” If you can get to that level, that is where we start to see significant changes in our relationships with others and ourselves.

As you are reflecting and going through these processes, what do you do when you encourage people to do the same and they respond with negativity? Do you have any suggestions for not letting that affect your self-esteem?

This is something that will come into our lives at some point. You may have a relationship with someone who has some unhealthy behaviors. This can make the relationship toxic. It is important to remember that we cannot control the people around us. We are only responsible for our own thoughts, words, and actions. A great resource for that is a book called Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. You are not responsible for their actions, but you can lead by example. It is often that we want to retaliate against someone who comes at us with negative behavior, but that gets us nowhere.

Make sure that you are in control of your responses. That can mean removing ourselves from prolonged exposure to that person, but there are times when we cannot do that because it is with a person we work with. However, it becomes a matter of guarding our own hearts in a way that builds immunity. For example, you can build the strength to say to yourself, “I know I need to work with someone who is always complaining. I almost know that it is going to happen, but I also know that I have a choice to not allow it to come into my own heart.” This is important because we are then able to see that other people are not where we are, and we can only meet people wherever they are and vice versa. It is crucial that we work on ourselves, lead by example, be conscious of boundaries, and avoid judging others.


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Brown, J.D., Brown, M.A. (2011). Self-reflection and feelings of self-worth: When Rosenberg meets Heisenberg. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 47(6):1269-1275. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2011.05.019

Chapman, G.D. & White, P.E. (2019) The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.  Chicago: Northfield Pub.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

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Kirk, J., MacDonald, A., Lavender, P., Dean, J., & Rubin, G. (2017). Can treatment adherence be improved by using Rubin's four tendencies framework to understand a patient's response to expectations. Biomed Hub 2:1-12. doi: 10.1159/000480347

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Rubin, G. (2017) The four tendencies: the indispensable personality profiles that reveal how to make your life better (and other people's lives better, too). London: John Murray Press.

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Wiseman, L. (2014). Rookie smarts: why learning beats knowing in the new game of work.  New York City: Harper Business.


Rodriguez, T. (2020).  Being a Leader When You're Not the Boss. - Early Childhood Education, Article 23619. Retrieved from

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tatiana rodriguez

Tatiana Rodriguez, MPH

Tatiana Rodriguez.
Professor. Corporate Trainer. Photographer. Video Storyteller. Happily investing in the next generation.

Tatiana believes that life is a gift and that leaving a meaningful legacy matters. She enjoys her time in interactive college classrooms investing in student leaders and in dynamic corporate classrooms investing in professionals with growth mindsets. Outside of the classroom, she is part historian, part creative and her contribution to this world is to create powerful stories and record them for future generations.

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