Most companies rarely operate an IT staff without a manager in place, but headless departments aren’t unheard of. Maybe staff members report directly to sales or marketing. Perhaps incompetence or a bad fit resulted in a manager’s departure, and the position has remained unfilled. In some cases, projects are left rudderless because there’s no management buy-in.

If you find yourself without a leader, take a cue from Private John Winger, from the classic 1981 movie Stripes: Learn to rely on yourself and your team to get the job done.

Rise above the ranks
In every team, there is a leader. Whether assigned or assumed, someone is inevitably singled out as a guide capable of resolving problems. When this process isn’t formalized, dissention among the ranks may lead to a breakdown within your group. So it’s particularly important to support leadership efforts.

Trying to avoid creating any rifts between your peers, identify and latch on to the person you believe is most likely to handle problems or questions. If someone who appears capable assumes the role of leader, follow that person. If you don’t see an apparent leader taking charge, you might be the best choice by default.

In Stripes, squad members initially refused to submit to direction from anyone. When they finally agreed to follow one of their teammates, they were able to coordinate their actions and ultimately accomplish their goals. John Winger wasn’t the smartest, best trained, or most specialized private within the group. But if the team had not agreed to come together under one person in spite of their differences, their efforts would have ended in failure.

Rely on your team for help
Whether you or one of your peers is elected to steer the group, try to get into the team mentality. With no official authority or direction coming from above, you have to be supportive of your teammates and be willing to depend on them when you need help.

After the rogue Stripes squad split up, part of the team was held prisoner behind enemy lines. The remaining team members used every resource they had available to rescue the captured squad members.

If you have only each other to watch out for mistakes, you need to share any knowledge or resources that will help in times of crisis. Someday, you may have your back against a wall, and if you’ve built up trust and become a member of the team, your peers will come to your aid.

Pick your battles
Without an authority figure to defend it, your team is wide open to whatever whims blow in from other departments. You have no one serving as a liaison for IT who can filter requests or grievances before they affect your group.

Maintaining productivity will get increasingly difficult, and you’ll be more likely to get forced into a defensive posture. Without official protection, it’s especially important to decide which fights are worth undertaking.

Keep your team in mind when figuring out when to push back. You must decide whether struggling against an issue or letting it go will help in the long run. Sometimes, personal sacrifice is necessary to achieve bigger goals,

Smart-guy John Winger ultimately finagles a reprieve when taking one for the team. In real life, letting something slide can mean a temporarily increased workload or having to do something the hard way, but it can prevent repercussions from disrupting the entire project.

Don’t go AWOL
When a team lacks direction, extra responsibility falls on you and your peers to keep sight of the goals. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who neglected to do something or who overlooked a critical detail—the entire team’s reputation is at stake if the job doesn’t get done.

Without a manager in place, the team must compensate in several ways. You should:

  • Conduct meetings and collaboration breaks to make sure your project stays on track, and don’t go too long without one. It’s not enough for everyone to do his or her own thing—you must pull together and fill in the gaps.
  • Make decisions, even if there is no clear consensus. If everyone doesn’t agree, have a vote, but don’t avoid deciding on a course of action.
  • Have peers review code, perform unit tests, and follow QA procedures to maintain accuracy. Attention to detail falls on the shoulders of each individual. Winger’s philosophy of “a hundred dollar shine on a three-dollar pair of shoes” won’t fly when it comes to software development.
  • Make a serious collaborative effort to put a plan in place, however informal, and stick to it. Ultimately, a deadline is a deadline, despite hardships.

Honorable discharge
We all dream of the perfect environment, where day-to-day operations don’t get in the way of software development. But it’s only a dream. When you find yourself or your project without a leader, the strategies we’ve looked at here will help you compensate. And after the job is done, and the president of your company asks whether your team really completed it on its own, you’ll be able to reply with a resounding, “That’s a fact, Jack!”

Take me to your leader

Have you managed to get through a tough project without a leader? How did you and your teammates handle things? What practices did you adopt to make your work successful? Help out your colleagues by posting your response in the discussion area below, or send our editors an e-mail.