Five Ways to More Effectively Lead from Below



Back when I was in the advertising business at Ogilvy/New York, I was taught the importance of “leading from below.” The idea is simple: Manage your manager. Lead your leader. Boss your boss.

What seemed like good corporate advice turned out to be life-lessons that apply to anyone in any position. In larger organizations these are especially useful ways for senior managers to help the “C”-suite and advance their careers. In fact, because top executives have to focus on the here and now, like next quarter’s revenue, it’s senior managers who typically tackle the hard issues that move an organization forward.

This is especially true with objectives that take some time to implement. For example, senior managers are usually best suited to shape and update the work culture, strengthen employee engagement, and lay the groundwork for challenges down the road. C-suite might set such a plan in action, but it’s senior and middle managers who do the heavy lifting.

We think winning workplaces of tomorrow will be those with strong leaders below the top rung of management. Are you leading from below?

Can You Lead from Below?

Here are five ways to more effectively be a leader from below — at any level in the organization.

  1. Realize “lead” is a verb. Often we look towards the corner office or top floor where the organization’s leaders sit for leadership. But anyone can lead anyone else. First, it takes a mindset. Elon Musk said, “I think it is possible for ordinary people to choose to be extraordinary.” It’s up to you to decide to be a leader. Not your boss, not someone else.
  2. Encourage followers, especially first followers. In the history of the world there’s never been a single leader who didn’t have followers. It’s a requirement of leadership. The most important follower is the first one you recruit. As this timeless video proves, without your first follower, you’re just a lone nut in the crowd. (BTW, this is one of the best leadership videos ever made. Period.) Identify, engage, and encourage followers to set you on the path.
  3. This is about influence and collaboration, not control. Leaders are not designated, they earn their position through their actions. They work with like-minded people across the organization, often horizontally not vertically along the organizational chart, to address issues facing the entire organization. It’s also not about doing for or to, but with.
  4. Get your direct reports to manage up, too. The best way to create more time for you to lead is to empower those who report to you to manage you. Teach them how to boss you around so you can focus on managing up yourself.
  5. Ask open-ended questions. One way to learn is to seek knowledge from those with it. Or to question the status quo. In either case, pose questions in a way that enables you to learn. Ask who, what, where, when, how, and why questions — open-ended questions that require full sentences as a response. Avoid “did you,” “will you,” or “are you,” which can be answered with a simple yes or no.

The success of your organization depends on more than what the C-suite can do. It depends on what you deliver and how well you lead from below. Look for opportunities to help the organization tackle the tough-to-solve, time-intensive issues that are necessary in order for you to win tomorrow.

Leading from below is the fastest way to the top.