People often ask, “How do I lead when I’m not in charge?” Let me fill you in on a little secret: You do not have to be in charge in order to lead! It’s the biggest myth about leadership.
If you’re on the front lines, you see things others don’t—you have a unique perspective. You have ideas that could make a big difference. You’re thinking of solutions to problems some people don’t even know exist. Your ability to lead up now will help determine your ability to move up later.
The Bible is filled with examples of men and women who led up—people like Daniel, or Esther, or John the Baptist. Daniel influenced the king even though he wasn’t in charge. Esther risked her life to influence her powerful husband. John the Baptist set the stage for Jesus in the New Testament. None of them had what we might call positional power—they all had great personal power.
Positional power is power based on someone’s title or experience. (Positional power is not what it used to be, either.) Personal power is based on what a group thinks about a person. Even if you lack positional power, you can lead up by serving up! If you want influence, care about people. Love them. Help them improve. However, leading up can be risky. If you lead in the wrong way, you can get some negative labels and lose personal power.
Let’s look at five things that matter when you find yourself asking, “How do I lead when I’m not in charge?”
- Honor matters. Honor publicly results in influence privately. If you want to be over people eventually, learn to serve under your leaders today. Don’t forget: respect is earned. Honor is given.
- Timing matters. Look at the rhythms of those you serve. Value their time. Schedule a meeting, and keep it short and focused. Have a written agenda. If you’re going to lead up, make sure the time is right.
- Motives matter. If you’re leading up, it shouldn’t be to make yourself look better, or to be a hero, or to make someone else look bad. Don’t just point out problems—bring solutions! If you always have a critical spirit, you’ll never have upward influence. There is a massive difference between thinking critically and being critical.
- Initiative matters. Do you want to gain trust and influence? Lighten your leader’s load. Find something that needs to be done and do it. The best team members don’t need to be told what to do because they intuitively find important things to do. If you’re willing to do what others won’t do, you’ll earn influence others don’t have.
- Truth matters. Truth always beats flattery. The more successful you become, the more difficult it is to find people who will tell you the truth. Those who care enough to tell you the truth are incredibly valuable.
Think about these five things when you’re hoping to lead up. And if you’re the leader, think about ways you can empower the people you lead to lead up freely.
If this article is helpful, you can find more detailed information on this subject and more on our leadership podcast. New episodes come out the first Thursday of every month.