the shape of leadership

Four Keys to Leading Up

Adding value and growing influence from a middle position

One of the common frustrations among new or young team members is figuring out how to gain influence with those above you and ahead of you. In other words, how do you “lead up” when you’re in the middle of the organization?

Just because you’re not in charge doesn’t mean you can’t make a positive difference, grow your influence, or add value to the church or organization you serve. Simply start where you are, and cultivate the following four practical qualities in your life:

Have a Posture That Reveals Teachability

If your leader feels he or she can’t teach you anything, you’ll never lead up. Know-it-alls are off-putting. They project arrogance and ego, and in their attempts to gain influence, they actually stifle it. No matter how smart you are, try not to make assumptions about what your leader does or doesn’t know.

We don’t know what we don’t know, so it’s important that we remain humble, teachable and willing to listen. Proverbs 18:2 reminds us, “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.”

Exhibit teachability by welcoming your leader’s coaching and feedback without getting defensive. Your leader has wisdom, which is one reason he or she is in a position of authority. You can demonstrate respect for that wisdom by actually seeking it out.

If you are always talking, you’ll never discover what you do not know. Great leaders regularly ask questions for which they do not have preconceived answers.

Achieve Priorities That Reflect Your Leader’s Goals

This is critical if you want to lead up: You must get on board with your leader’s agenda, rather than creating your own. The priorities you operate by each day should be in full alignment with your leader’s vision and goals.

Without alignment, you’ll create silos, increase tension and disrupt unity. It’s like having a car that’s out of alignment. Rather than driving smoothly to your intended destination, the car constantly pulls to one side. The faster you go, the more you feel the tension.

If your priorities are out of sync with your leader’s, the problem isn’t your leader; it’s you. Your job is not to reinvent the vision, but rather to align your gifts, resources, ideas and influence with the vision. If your priorities create organizational drag, you’re out of alignment.

I’m not suggesting blind followership.

In her book, Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters, Barbara Kellerman from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government identifies seven types of bad leadership: incompetent, rigid, intemperate, callous, corrupt, insular and evil. If your leader begins walking down these paths, you obviously don’t want to blindly add your influence to the fire and create an even more dysfunctional situation.

Serve with all your heart, and leave the outcome to the Lord.

But that’s seldom the issue when it comes to leading up. The alignment issues are usually disagreements over methods, not morals. Don’t let personal preference get in the way of organizational priorities.

If you’re the leader in charge, be intentional about welcoming pushback, staying open to better ways to accomplish the vision, and creating a culture that leans into a forward-thinking mindset. If everyone has to think just like you, there’s no reason to have high-capacity team members. You just need order-takers.

If you are the follower, establish your priorities in alignment with your leader’s goals. Once you set those priorities, consistently deliver them with excellence. In fact, over-deliver. As you do, your influence will naturally increase.

Why? Because your leader will see somebody who shares the heart of the house. The value you add to the church or organization will be apparent.

As you go above and beyond what’s required, your leader be more inclined to trust you with greater opportunity and authority. Mediocrity doesn’t get rewarded. Doing what you were hired to do doesn’t impress your leader; going the extra mile does.

Develop People Skills That Represent Your Leader Well

Leaders deal with a lot of pressure and problems, and the last thing they need is for a member of their team to create more chaos. This is especially true when it comes to relationship dynamics. Your leader needs you to get along with others and be a team player.

It’s important for you to build chemistry and community with the team. No one wants to put out your fires because you can’t get along or control your emotions.

When you lack people skills, you represent your leader poorly to the individuals you meet. If word gets back to your leader, your influence quotient will take a hit. And it should. Your leader doesn’t need “people repellent” on the team. Your leader needs someone who can represent him or her well and attract others to the vision.

John Maxwell often says, “People buy into the leader, then the vision.” Your leader needs a team of leaders who can broaden the buy-in. That requires not only alignment, but also people skills. Good people skills broaden your influence.

Respect Your Leader’s Time By Being Prepared

Your leader is busy. He or she carries a great deal of responsibility, and time is a precious commodity. Therefore, one of the greatest ways you can show respect for your leader is by showing respect for his or her time. How do you do that? Be prepared.

If you have a meeting with your leader, come to it prepared. Do your research in advance. Anticipate your leader’s questions ahead of time. Come with multiple solutions to a problem. You’ll never gain more of your leader’s time if you’re not prepared for the time you currently receive.

Let me conclude with one important observation: the goal of leading up isn’t more influence; increased influence is simply the byproduct. Don’t worry about the size of your influence. Be faithful. Serve with all your heart. Carry out the four practices above with intention and integrity. Then leave the outcome to the Lord.


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