by David Ratcliffe
Date Published - Last Updated February 25, 2016

You may think the only person at the service desk who needs to be concerned with leadership is the manager. After all, when we think of leaders, we usually think of someone who:

  • Is in charge 
  • Provides direction to others 
  • Thinks up creative solutions to problems 
  • Makes the important decisions 
  • Takes responsibility

In any department, it’s only the manager who does the leading, right? I disagree. I submit that anyone can embody the characteristics of leadership without necessarily being an official leader, and without causing a disruption.

As General Colin Powell once said, “Leadership is all about getting the most out of people. It’s about creating a sense of purpose and condition of trust while displaying moral and physical courage.” He also said that when it comes to leadership, “organization charts and fancy titles count for next to nothing!”

So before we go any further, let’s make sure we’re clear on the differences between management and leadership.


Almost every one of us has a manager. They’re mainly focused on short-term goals; they work to plans and targets; they’re preoccupied with activities and processes; and they’re very concerned with measurements, systems, structure, controls, and administration. They need to know work is being accomplished at the right level of quality and in good time. There’s no doubt about it: good managers are essential!


Leaders are preoccupied with the future. They understand, support, and communicate the business’s vision, values, beliefs, and behaviors. Leaders observe attitudes, and they work with people more than systems and processes. Leaders take a wide view of the environment and are always asking questions, challenging the status quo, and looking for opportunities to improve and new ways of doing things. Innovative thinking is one of the key characteristics of true leaders. What else makes someone a true leader?

  • True leaders are knowledgeable. They understand how team results deliver value to the business. 
  • True leaders think about the future. They’re able to connect their vision with goals and priorities. 
  • True leaders are good communicators. They listen as well as speak. 
  • True leaders are authentic and trustworthy. They demonstrate the positive values of honesty, consistency, integrity, and reliability; they always do what’s right. 
  • True leaders empower their coworkers with knowledge, skills, and other resources. 
  • True leaders have a positive attitude. They’re optimistic, confident, courageous, determined, and persistent.

Do you see the difference? Managers manage day-to-day activities and monitor the results; leaders lead us towards a better future, keeping use focused on what’s important and relevant in the big picture. Both roles are essential, and while they’re often held by the same person, this is not always the case.

Leadership can come from a Designated Manager (a team or department’s existing, appointed leader), but in situations where a manager isn’t providing strong leadership, we may see it emerge from Self-Empowered Leaders. We all come to work wanting to do a good job and deliver value, so the Self-Empowered Leader could be anyone—including you.

The Designated Manager

As the name implies, Designated Managers have been appointed, either hired to fill a specific vacancy or promoted into a vacancy or a newly-defined role. Regardless, Designated Managers are very visible in their workgroups because everyone knows this is the person who’s been given the responsibility for managing and leading the team. Unfortunately, not every Designated Manager performs well as a leader. Sometimes this is because they spend most of their time and effort on management tasks, and sometimes it’s because leadership is either not top of mind or not a natural tendency. This creates a leadership gap that can be filled by Self-Empowered Leaders.

The Self-Empowered Leader

You won’t see this “role” on any organization chart, and you won’t see any job descriptions for this “title.” Self-empowered leadership becomes evident when someone demonstrates the positive characteristics and behaviors we associate with leaders, even though they have not been designated as such. Their thinking goes beyond the self to supporting and empowering the team to achieve results. A Self-Empowered Leader is not someone who takes control of the team. Rather, a good Self-Empowered Leader is respectful and not at all disruptive (so if you think that following my advice here will get you into trouble, don’t worry!).

So, how can you be a Self-Empowered Leader? Here are seven areas where you need to develop your thinking and make a greater contribution. 

  1. If you don’t know what your business’s current goals are, then how can your team’s goals and priorities support the business? This is one of the most important and valuable exercises any team can undertake. Make sure your team is relevant by aligning your work with your business’s needs. If you’re not the manager, then you may feel like you don’t have the authority to do this, but you can certainly ask questions and encourage others—including your manager—to think about them. 
  2. Do you know where your business is headed? Is there an evolving vision for the business’s future, as defined by its leaders? If you don’t know, find out. Then, talk about it with your coworkers and manager. How might the service desk need to evolve to remain relevant and continue providing value to the business? You and your team know your work better than anyone else, so take some responsibility for its value and impact, not just today, but heading into the future, too. 
  3. While you’re talking with your coworkers, make sure to listen to them as well. What can you learn from their experiences? Do you really have the complete picture, or are there important facts and issues that can round out your knowledge? When you listen and ask meaningful questions, your credibility with your coworkers will go up. Also, take advantage of any opportunities to remind your coworkers of the business’s vision and goals, as well as your team’s vision and goals. This will help them stay focused on what’s important and prioritize accordingly. 
  4. As you go about your daily work and interact with your coworkers, wear your personal values on your sleeve. As you walk your talk, you’ll be recognized for your integrity and others will see you as someone who knows how to do the right thing. 
  5. Understand what it means to empower your coworkers. Empowering someone does not mean giving them permission; rather, it means providing them with the support, information, and resources they need to get their work done. Sure, managers might empower their subordinates by giving them formal training, relief from other tasks, assistants, or better tools. Those are things you might not be able to do because of your position. But coworkers can empower each other using a host of other techniques, such as listening and advising, reminding each other about what’s important, sharing any special skills or knowledge, or providing an additional pair of hands when deadlines are tight. 
  6. Take the opportunities in front of you as positive challenges. It’s all in your attitude toward your work; don’t be a defeatist. Be realistic and honest about what’s possible, of course, but always try to look for lasting solutions to incidents and problems. Band-Aids always fall off eventually. Put the right amount of thinking and effort into your work, and get the job done right the first time. Encourage your coworkers to do the same. They’ll thank you. 
  7. As with many departments, service desks often seem to be constrained by policies and rules. Good policies serve as guides to what we should be doing—most of the time. It isn’t possible to account for all eventualities when developing rules and policies, and technology and customer needs change over time. So, when it seems like what we’re about to do might not be enough, don’t be afraid to ask questions.

    This is the one area where you could be viewed as a troublemaker if you don’t go about it with some sensitivity. The right way to initiate new thinking when you’re not the Designated Manager is not to say, “We need to change this!” That’s potentially confrontational, and it could compromise your relationship with your manager. Instead, initiate a dialogue with your coworkers and manager by raising the issue and asking if it might be a good idea to do things differently next time. The team can then discuss the issue and come to a collective agreement. You’ll have started the ball rolling, but without stepping on anyone’s toes.

As you can see, you don’t need to be the person in charge to be a leader and drive positive results. Leadership is about influencing people to do the right things, and anyone can do that. Job titles have nothing to do with it.

Show your coworkers and managers what you’re made of by embracing the concepts of self-empowered leadership. Think and act in the best interests of your business, your customers, and your team, and you’ll be respected and admired for sure. Good luck!


David Ratcliffe is the cofounder and president of Pink Elephant. David is recognized as one of the industry’s foremost ITSM visionaries, advocates, and leaders; in 1987, he led a team of consultants that contributed to the first version of the ITIL framework, and in 1997, he delivered the first ITIL Foundation course in North America in 1997. He later worked on the team that developed the original HDI Support Center Standard. As a prolific blogger, industry commentator, and speaker, David offers insightful and practical solutions to real life issues in the areas of IT leadership and ITSM. Follow him on Twitter @PinkerDavid.

Tag(s): leadership, service desk, professional development


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