Ten Steps for Employees to Lead From Below

Sep 08, 2020 7 Min Read

Meeting Management Halfway

In our work with leaders across sectors and industries, we often get asked about how people can ‘lead from below’.

How can they exert influence on the organisation and its culture even when they do not have much (or any) formal authority, or when they work in middle management, or when they work for a bad or mediocre manager, or for a company with a toxic culture?

The short answer: you can do much more than you think.

Ronald Heifetz from Harvard has noted that since we tend to conflate leadership and authority, even the idea of leading without authority can be perplexing. Authority is the right to make decisions, give orders, and enforce obedience. There are many leaders who operate that way, but leadership is fundamentally different.

Much of the important leadership we’ve seen in organisations comes not just from people with authority but also from people throughout the organisation, regardless of their title. We have seen brilliant leadership in action from people with little authority, from new people, from interns.

Technically powerless, but they make us change their diapers.

One of the advanced leadership practices we advocate in Triple Crown Leadership, based on our interviews with 61 organisations in 11 countries, is unleashing the latent leadership, creativity, and agency of people throughout the organisation – viewing them as ‘stewards’ of the organisation’s shared purpose, values, and vision and its quest to be excellent, ethical, and enduring.

That means developing and expecting leadership not just from above but also employees to lead from below. That means that everyone has essentially two job descriptions: first, their normal duties, and second, defending the organisation’s results imperative, ethics imperative, and sustainability imperative.

In addressing how to lead from below, we first note that there are real dangers associated with it.

In addressing how to lead from below, we first note that there are real dangers associated with it. When handled poorly, it can cause real problems. You can become a lightning rod. You can be attacked. You can be the messenger who gets shot. You can become the scapegoat. You can lose your job.

Some managers may feel challenged or insulted when employees try to lead from below. If they are insecure or arrogant, they may attack or punish you. Other times, your colleagues will view it as an attack on the group, and they may feel obligated to isolate you out of loyalty to the group. When leading without authority, you should expect some resistance, and you need to play it smart.

Note also that there are great rewards possible when you lead from below, both for you and the organisation. Here are some tips based on our own experiences and what we have seen in the leadership literature.

Read: What Is The Connection Between Influence And Position?

1. Embrace your own potential and abilities

Too often, followers give too much deference to their leaders and relinquish their own power and responsibility. With a more enlightened viewpoint, you may find that you have more potential and influence than you think arising from your knowledge, skills, relationships, work ethic, and access to information or people.

2. Reframe your mindset about your role (and your manager)

Followers can also be too quick to throw up their hands and abdicate responsibility for what is happening in the organisation, pointing fingers of blame at their colleagues who happen to be in positions of authority.

The best followers do all they can to help the organisation achieve its purpose, vision, and goals while operating within the bounds of values and ethics. This means shaking things up, taking risks, and helping leaders get better (e.g., by informing them of problems they may not be aware of, raising tough issues, asking provocative questions, letting their manager know what they need to succeed, and developing relationships of trust with all they work with).

We should also check our beliefs about our leaders: do we hold them to unrealistic expectations of perfection or judge them too harshly even when we may not be aware of all the challenges they face, with the pressures and demands of leadership? Have we walked a mile in their shoes?

3. Have a bias for action

Too many people wait to be anointed before acting, or for conditions to be ‘just right’ (which almost never happens). In Leadership without Easy Answers, Ron Heifetz writes, “many people wait until they gain authority, formal or informal, to begin leading. They see authority as a prerequisite. Yet those who do lead usually feel that they are taking action beyond whatever authority they have.”

4. Increase your leverage – build informal authority

People generally respond positively to leadership regardless of whether it comes from positions of authority or not. Build up your bank account of informal authority by first and foremost establishing credibility through character and competence, as well as demonstrating trustworthiness, respect, courage, clarity, commitment, and effective communication and listening (even to people with whom you disagree).

5. Clearly establish your loyalty to the organisation

So people know this is not a power play or selfish ambition. It must be clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have your colleagues’ and the organisation’s best interests at heart. Be thoughtful about how you communicate to your colleagues, taking nothing for granted.

6. Identify allies, relevant stakeholders, and adversaries

Map out all the people, teams, and divisions involved, and see things from their perspective. Recruit as many allies as you can, especially those with deep credibility, influence, and insight into the organisation – thinking also about who is trustworthy.

Be open to new ideas, recognising that you may be missing something that you cannot see clearly from your perch and that other people come at it from a different perspective.

7. Determine your best approach

Specifically, whether you will try to get results by changing the mind or behavior of your manager or management team, or whether you will instead mobilise colleagues around you as change agents (or some combination). Too often, followers assume that they have to do the former, but in many cases the latter approach can be more effective over time.

8. Recognise that by lacking authority you have advantages

The cons of lacking authority are clear and obvious, such as lacking power over people and resources. The pros are less obvious but often important, including more latitude to do things differently, freedom from political limitations, less need to account for an overwhelming array of stakeholders often with conflicting interests, more access to information on the front lines, and an ability to advocate for focused issues as opposed to the full array of considerations.

9. Speak up and raise concerns when needed

This is one of the most important aspects of leading from below, in part because it is so rare. According to the Corporate Executive Board (now part of Gartner), “Nearly half of all executive teams fail to receive negative news that is material to firm performance in a timely manner because employees are afraid of being tainted by the bad news, and “only 19% of executive teams are always promptly informed of bad news that is material to firm performance.” Leadership expert Warren Bennis wrote, “If I had to reduce the responsibilities of a good follower to a single rule, it would be to speak truth to power.”

How to speak up when needed?

First, get all the facts and avoid jumping to conclusions. Our brains make extensive use of mental shortcuts and these can often lead to mistaken assumptions or biases. If the issue is in fact real, address it directly with the person in question, but ask and learn first (seeking to understand).

No guns blazing with accusations. Be open to their input and try to see things from their perspective. If not satisfied or resolved after dealing directly with the person involved, then go up the chain of command to object or blow the whistle. Meanwhile, consider seeking allies (and legal or human resources help, if needed).

10. Be prepared to walk away, if need be

Before assuming too much risk, think through your professional options (i.e., where would you work if you left this organisation) and your personal and family finances. Have you been living lean and diligently building up savings and investments so that you are not living paycheck to paycheck and beholden to an organisation that may no longer fit with your values or goals?

Are you ready to lead from below?

The best way to develop one’s own leadership skills is to practice leadership, even if one lacks the formal authority to lead. Leading from below is never easy and not without risk, but it is a powerful way to learn while also providing a great service to your colleagues and organisation.

See Also: 4 Tips to Help Young People Develop Confidence and Purpose

Republished with permission on Leaderonomics.com.

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Tags: Emerging Leadership


Gregg Vanourek is an executive, changemaker, and award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership, entrepreneurship, and life and work design. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on leading self, leading others, and leading change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion).

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