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Leadership from Below

Leadership from Below

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

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 organisation. 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 behoves 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 recognised. 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.

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