by Patricia Wallington

Leadership from Below

Oct 15, 20026 mins
IT Leadership

Some say that leadership always starts at the top. But does it end with the CEO? I don’t think so. Leadership skills can be found at all levels of an organization. You can?and should?exhibit leadership to influence those at the top of your company.

Consider this scenario. You are in a meeting that seems to be in a perpetual spin cycle. No one seems to know what will move the situation forward. You know what needs to be done?but you are the most junior member of the team. Should you speak up?

Of course. But before you leap to your feet and grab the pen, consider how to be most effective when you are attempting to lead from below.

Cultural Permission

Assess what your corporate culture supports or allows. Is it customary for even the low man on the totem pole to be viewed as an equal in senior meetings? Watch the reactions when you do speak out. Are heads nodding assent or is there a loud silence? This will help you gauge whether and whom you can count on for support.

My advice to CIOs: Speak even if nervous. Your technology currency may make your ideas more relevant to the solution. Your active participation can begin to shape a culture of openness that will benefit everyone. Rather than curbing your leadership, focus on finding the effective way to participate.

Prepare the Way

Develop a relationship with key senior leaders. Choose them based on their influence rather than their position. Find the casual environments where people let their guard down. Learn from them and share your knowledge at the same time. Those relationships will provide the foundation of support for your leadership no matter how senior the meeting or controversial the issue.

Engage in a dialogue that facilitates seeding your ideas with those key decision makers. Sometimes you can share an idea with a senior person and let him be the sword bearer.

Pick Your Spots

Not every issue is a candidate for leadership from below. Consider the value you bring to each question. Is the company about to make a strategic error? Do you have extensive knowledge of the subject? You will either build political capital or expend it as you proceed, so it behooves you to act with that in mind.

As the most junior member of a company’s Strategic Planning Task Force, I was faced with a challenging situation. The group’s final task called for each member to present to the CEO a future business scenario she thought most likely (in 10 minutes). The scenario I put forward was radically different from all the others.

There were compelling issues facing the company in both the short and long terms. The other scenarios, in my view, would not affect the necessary change in the requisite window of time. Technology was changing the business much faster than the other executives recognized. In the discussion that followed, I played out example after example of the risks of not adopting an aggressive plan, feeling much like Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men.

In the end, the consensus position was a hybrid, but one that was more aggressive than if I had remained passive. This issue was a good candidate for me to show leadership because the future viability of the company was at stake, and my technology role gave me a clear view of the alternatives and risks.

Judge Not

Try not to be judgmental about leadership. Thinking that you always have the best answer or approach is a sure path to career disaster. There can be so many reasons why the right leadership hasn’t surfaced above you. Big issues may distract top executives. They may fear showing their lack of specific knowledge (especially if it is a technology issue). The ghosts of former failures may haunt them. Whatever the reason, it creates a prize opportunity for you to demonstrate leadership.

There are many ways to influence the senior leaders of your company. The key to success is finding the way to push the envelope without losing your credibility. Be sure your behavior fits the occasion. Leading from below is a high-wire act that requires almost bipolar behavior?courage and confidence balanced by humility, assertiveness yet deference. Freely share the credit for success. It may take a little practice but it will pay dividends.

One time I pushed the envelope aggressively, only to be called to task by the company president. I pitched my approach to him as hard as I knew how. Finally, I got a note of what I interpreted as approval: “You have my support to proceed at your own risk.” Interpretation: If it works, he takes the credit; if it fails, the blame is mine. I did it anyway. It worked.

Grow Your Own Leadership

While you work on influencing the senior leadership of your company, set the stage for your own IS group. Find ways to recognize and nurture the emerging leadership deep in the organization.

How do you uncover the hidden talent in the organization? Get to know the people yourself. While that isn’t always possible in large organizations, you should try to get to know as many as possible. This is how you find out about the leadership people exert in their personal lives. The one who led the effort to build the new town football stadium, the president of a professional association, the leader in a political campaign. These are natural leaders hungry for the opportunity to use their skills at work.

Do all eyes of your staff turn to you every time there is an issue? You have work to do to encourage the leadership below. Try the following behaviors:

  • Solicit employees’ ideas and encourage participation in important discussions.
  • Learn to speak after others have given their thoughts. The boss’s words can stifle other input.
  • Never disparage what went before, even if you disagree with it. Try to build on others’ ideas rather than knock them down. Fear of embarrassment is a powerful demotivator.
  • Provide positive feedback and recognition to those who demonstrate leadership.
  • Let others lead. Show the way by restraining your own drive to lead and being a supportive follower.
  • Use failures to teach. Experience is the best teacher and failure the consummate coach. Without support from above and the ability to learn from mistakes, people will avoid risk-taking.

Whether nurturing the emerging IT leadership or having the courage to demonstrate your own leadership in senior executive circles, know that you are contributing to the ultimate success of your company.