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Even the best leaders get invited to work on projects or teams in which they are not in charge. Maybe you need to learn new skills or gain knowledge, or maybe your boss just wants to see how well you play with others. Whatever the case, you’re now in a situation you haven’t been in for a while.

Learning to hold back a habitual behavior requires adopting a different mindset, which is easier said than done. Begin working on it by learning to think differently about how you add value at work. No, really, stop assuming your leadership skills are the only things that make you valuable (some of your other abilities may even be more needed!).

Here are five ways to change up your thinking so you can be a strong team member—even when someone else is steering the ship:


1. Manage Your Ego

Leaders often enjoy the status of being at the top, or in the position that everyone goes to for answers. Who doesn’t like feeling powerful and smart?

However, you need to switch that off to be a good team member or individual contributor. (The last thing you want to be is the person competing with the decision-maker for status and control.) Bonus: Practicing humility will carry across all of your projects and make you more pleasant to report to as well.


2. Don’t Overstep (Even With Good Intentions)

A common mistake leaders-as-team members make is trying to make the official person in charge look good. It sounds good—but it usually backfires.

I was placed on a team that was being led by a person who used to work for me. Out of loyalty and support, I assumed it would be a good thing for me to not only do my job, but to put a little extra effort into making the leader look good. I did this by making sure he got credit for every success the team had. At the end of the project, he got feedback that he took credit for too much and didn’t spread the love when it came to acknowledging everyone—and I had unwittingly been the one to cause the problem!

Your job is to just do your job. The leader can take care of himself.


3. Think Like a Student, Not a Critic

Use the opportunity of being a contributor to study how others approach leadership. Don’t second-guess how they should do things, watch how they actually go about them.

When the opportunity presents itself, make the person in the leadership role your teacher. Study how she thinks about managing a team and how she approaches it. Assume she has a superpower you don’t have and learn from her.


4. Channel Your Abilities

Even if you’re not running point, you can still use your skills to help the team as a whole. In other words, lead yourself, and lead tasks or teams assigned to you.

Remember, just because you’re not in control doesn’t mean you are off the hook for doing your best work (and what’s best in this case is to supporting the work of the person in charge).


5. Model Ideal “Follower” Behavior

Being a good follower is as tough as being a good leader, maybe tougher. Ask yourself “How would I want someone on my team to do this job if I were running things?” Then work on doing the job that way. People will take note of how ego-less and supportive you are.

I worked with a CEO who felt he needed to take a follower role in an upcoming company-wide strategy session. His management team protested, because they were used to him leading the process. However, he appointed a manager two levels down to lead the session. To everyone’s surprise, the session was among the best in the company’s history. Why? Because the CEO took a follower role which allowed others to rise to the surface with their ideas and insights.



The leadership traits that people most appreciate are humility, authenticity, and integrity. Whatever role you hold on a given team or project, using these traits as a starting point will increase people’s respect and trust of you, and help you work collaboratively and effectively.