How Do You Lead When You're Not In Charge?

LIBERATUS is a weekly journal creatively pursuing Truth and Beauty by empowering writers in American politics to tell the story of healing through freedom. You can join the pursuit by applying to write, subscribing to the journal, or funding our vision.

Today’s writer, a current Executive Assistant in the U.S. House of Representatives, continues the Issue 009 theme of A Desert Journey.  

How Do You Lead When You’re Not In Charge?

Editor’s Note: What do you do when you find you can’t take the status quo for another work day? Maybe you’re dying to offer your full potential in a job situation that seems determined to stifle it. You want to write in a way that will change the world, in a way that will ease the rampant fear and anxiety constantly churning in the pile of letters that need a response, in the phone calls to your congressional office. Every time you turn on a presidential debate, you cringe—no, you die inside a little, along with the country—over how unbearably silly the spectacle has become. You’re tired of trying to figure out which group of Americans is supposedly destroying the country. You hope the next generation will change it all, will do politics better, and you wish, more than anything, that someone would offer a coherent vision for healing and restoration.

Instead you see the reality of human brokenness in the Capitol, on the campaign trail, or wherever you work—and especially inside yourself.

If this describes you, we’re together in this. You’re ready to speak up, chances are you’re ready to lead; maybe you’ve even grown stale waiting for the next promotion or job change and it’s time to make a decision. Maybe you’ve only been on Capitol Hill for a few months; maybe you’ve got a decade or more of political or professional experience behind you. But either way, you have a vision forming for something better, something more life-giving. When you look in the eyes of your colleagues you can see it: you see the burnout, the confusion, the political chaos. You know what it will take to make Truth and Beauty the defining characteristics of your work.

The truth is, the vision growing inside you might force you out into the unknown. It might lead you to take financial risks you never thought possible. Maybe even speaking up and staying true to your core values will cost you not just your job but your reputation.

Either way, learn everything you can in the process. You’ll be entrusted with greater leadership soon.

Today’s writer, a current Executive Assistant on Capitol Hill, writes about these ideas and what it looks like to lead when you’re not in charge. There’s more that could be said, but I hope you’ll join the conversation. How do you lead when you’re not in charge? Comment below, we’d love to hear from you.

-Caleb Paxton, LIBERATUS Founder


How Do You Lead When You’re Not In Charge?

“He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander.”

- Aristotle

You are a leader. Or, at least within you there is the potential to be a leader should you choose to unleash it. When we think of great leaders we often and rightfully think of the men or women at the helm of an organization or country; but what we often fail to recognize is that beneath each of these leaders pushing them to greatness is an army of developing leaders. These developing leaders, whether assistants or volunteers, have a vital role to fill and their leadership is essential to any organization.

The role of the developing leader not only gives the opportunity to learn from the current leader, it also allows the developing leader to learn how to first be a servant.  In order to be a great leader it is essential to first learn how to serve well. Servant leadership is the ability to go to the trenches for the mission and values of the organization. It is the ability to roll up your sleeves willingly to do the grunt work; no task is below the servant leader. Most importantly servant leadership teaches humility.  A servant leader puts aside their ambition, their glory and their vision to seek that which is best for the organization.

In this current role, while working in the current system and vision, you are able to develop a vision for what is missing and what is broken in the system. Some of us have leaders above us whose mission and value system is in line with our own; they too desire to see true freedom restored throughout our nation and its Capitol. But many developing leaders may not be so lucky. 

In more frustrating positions current leaders are willing obstacles to the restoration of truth and beauty. How we serve these leaders is just as telling to our character as how we serve leaders we admire and respect, especially when we consider that even flawed leaders can grow and change. That’s why it’s imperative to recognize we are here to serve, and serve well. Doing so affords us the opportunity to see the depth of the brokenness of our workplace or culture. Let this fuel us to be determined for change. When the time comes to step out into leadership we will be better equipped to work toward healing and restoration.

For many of us who work on the Hill or as assistants to well-known leaders, this is where we lead. Many of us are employees “at the will of the Member.” Much of the work we do seems unglamorous and unrecognized and if you came to DC to be a leader it’s easy to get frustrated. This is something I struggle with frequently. There have been many times when I’ve questioned “Is there anything I’m doing here that’s actually making a difference?” I schedule meetings, I take care of the leader’s needs and some days it feels like I’m mindlessly putting pieces of the puzzle together.

However, I recently read a Washington Post piece on President Obama’s Special Assistant. His job is a lot like our jobs as Executive Assistants on the Hill. He anticipates the needs of the President. He takes the daily routine pressures and worries from the President and takes them on himself, freeing the President to focus on the more difficult issues facing the nation.  As I read this story and spoke with other leaders, my perspective began to change. I am a leader right now as an Executive Assistant. Taking on the sometimes mundane tasks and serving my leaders frees them to focus on the more complex tasks at hand.

Vince Lombardi put it perfectly when he stated “Leaders aren’t born they are made.” Just as we need to learn to become great servant leaders it is also imperative that we use our time to cultivate skills worthy of a great leader.

President Washington And the Rules of Civility

When I think of people who executed leadership extremely well President George Washington comes to mind. As a young boy Washington became committed to living by “The Rules of Civility.” Historian Brookhiser states that “the rules address moral issues but they address them indirectly. They seek to form the inner man by shaping the outer man.” These rules established Washington’s moral leadership and character. Taking a look at three of them, it’s easy to see how we can all grow as leaders, even if we’re not yet in charge.

1) “Every Action done in the presence of company ought to be with some sign of respect to those who are present.” 

Rule number one established the importance of respect for all people. People, whether of a different political party, religion, or economic stature, all deserved respect according to the rules Washington lived by.

22) “Show yourself not glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.”

Let that one sink in. It’s hard to not gloat or be excited when the other team loses or struggles. Imagine the strength of leader who can be somber and collected in the face of misfortune of a political enemy.

40) “Strive not with your superior in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty.”

We've already established that many of us are developing leaders who have superiors. This rule President Washington lived by goes back to the point made earlier: it’s not always our job in these roles to force our views or opinions. To lead well in these situations, often we must humbly submit and serve. When we disagree, we can offer our own perspectives with modesty, which will also show the genuineness of our position.

Reading through these and the others it’s easy to see how Washington was able to lead with force and dignity. The rules and values he lived by established humility, respect, and other admirable traits we desire to see in leaders today. The values set forth during his time developing leadership would guide him through his presidency, and he did not waiver from them. As aspiring leaders we too should be using this time to establish our own set of values, build up our character, and hone vital leadership skills. If you haven’t already, take some time now in your current status as a developing leader to sit down and think hard about the values that will guide you as you take on more leadership. For when our time comes to step into roles of great leadership, we shall be prepared to lead with the integrity we have built while waiting in the background.

During my time serving a national leader I have learned the importance of leading when not in charge. With the right attitude, right perspective, willingness to learn, and servant posture, every position can provide opportunities for leadership and prepare you for greater leadership.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” – John Quincy Adams


Who are you as a leader? Spend time this week writing down your core values. What will you absolutely not tolerate? What are you committed to no matter what? What do you believe it will take to offer your workplace quality work? If you’re stumped, check out the core values of LIBERATUS; we’ve listed 3 main ideas, each with several sub points that could be applied or adapted to any workplace.

If you work in American politics, what area of your workplace leadership needs to change to reflect the unity of Truth and Beauty more deeply? Make the changes yourself if you can, or if necessary, have a conversation with someone who can help your office or organization improve.

Want to learn more on this topic? Check out Next Generation Leader: Five Essentials for Those Who Will Shape the Future by Andy Stanley.


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Cover Photo Credit: Heather Gibbons