There are very few of us who have not had the experience of being at the bottom of the organizational chart at some point in our work or ministry life. I landed my first real job when I was fourteen as a dishwasher at a popular local cafe. Every Saturday from 6am to 2pm, I was tucked away in the corner of the tiny kitchen slogging dish soap, pancake batter, and ketchup desperately trying to keep up. No one was asking “prune hands” for his input on operational issues or for ideas about new menu items. I was the low man on the totem pole who had a very specific job description.
That was a tough and dirty job for many obvious reasons, but it was one of the easiest I have ever had. Contrast that to the experience of being brought into an organization with the expectation of having influence on culture, design, production, vision, etc. What do you do when the rhetoric of the leadership focuses on how everyone’s opinion matters, teamwork, and collaboration, but the reality is that you are clearly at the bottom of the organization chart? How do you lead from the bottom?
I want to explore the five ways I’ve seen some people try this—the wrong ways. Then I want to explore what to do instead.
One of the worst ways to develop influence is to be perceived as the know-it-all, looking down your nose at the way things are done. Maybe you came from a much larger organization and this little backwards duct-taped country church could use your big city experience and know-how. This is a frequent pitfall for many of us because we see our experience on a bigger stage as a way to establish our authority in a new place. It is how we prove that we deserve a seat at the table—or so we think. Unfortunately, when we come with this kind of attitude, we can be perceived as irrelevant very quickly. You’ll hear things like, “Those ideas won’t work here.” or “We don’t have the resources to do something that big.” Even if our ideas and experience are great, we won’t gain the influence we seek.
Lead by learning and start by learning the culture and the language. When you begin to grasp the way things are done and said in the organization, bring that together with your knowledge. Think about the building blocks of the previous successes and failures you’ve seen and how they could apply to your current setting. By focusing on learning, you will begin to see how you can bring a fresh perspective without coming off like you are trying to replicate what was done somewhere else.
The Suck Up
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is the attempt to gain influence by sucking up to your leader. You schmooze with them every chance you get. You always try to grab the seat next to them in staff meeting. You shove others out of the way to bring them coffee or their favorite chair. You dig around for articles from their favorite speakers or educate yourself on their favorite coffee. Not only is this a little creepy, it’s also not a great way to lead. It may gain you temporary attention from that leader, but it will have lasting negative effects on your peers. Being a suck up is a hard reputation to shake once you have it.
What’s the solution?
Lead by serving others no matter their position. There is nothing that will gain you more legitimate influence than acting with a true servant’s heart toward your team members.
The No Tact
If you come into an organization spewing your ideas and fresh perspective everywhere, you will not be revered for your revolutionary point of view. Believe me, I know this from personal experience. Even if, initially, you are invited into meetings for your outsider input, those invitations will dry up if you don’t learn quickly about a little thing called tact. This is similar to the High-brow, but appears less like your are arrogant and more like you are spastic. This shows itself particularly when you are in a new position or invited into a meeting with higher-level leadership. If you’re not careful, the excitement of the opportunity can get the best of you and you will begin to vomit your thoughts everywhere.
Lead by listening. Sometimes the best thing you can do is become a fly on the wall. It will help you temper your input a little, especially if you have a tendency (like myself) to share liberally. If need be, send an email after a meeting expressing your opinion or thoughts. It will give you some time to formulate your best thoughts.
In your attempts to lead and gain influence, be careful not to go over the head of your direct leadership. I’m not saying that there are not times for giving your ideas to your boss’s boss, but it is best to cultivate a relationship with your leader. This can be a big temptation, particularly if you and the person above you don’t have a great relationship. Although the leapfrog seems like a good solution at the time, it can destroy any hopes of building good rapport with that person.
Lead by investing in your relationship with your leader. This can be a tough one, because some leaders may be insecure and resistant to it. But it’s important not to give up too soon. Servanthood and love have a way of breaking down even the most difficult barriers. He or she already has influence and you can more effectively work together to make change a reality.
The worst way to lead from the bottom and gain influence is to mope about how you don’t have any. A bad attitude will get you nothing but a bad reputation for bringing others down. Often the emo employee can be found spreading their negativity to others behind closed doors or in the meeting after the meeting. Don’t do this. If you know it’s your tendency to become negative about things, be especially careful. It can be easy to fall into the trap using it to gain attention.
Lead with positivity. It is infectious. Work hard to keep a positive attitude even in the midst of difficult staff relationships and situations. Negativity rarely leads to greater influence.
One final note: if you want to lead at all, you must lead with commitment. You will not gain influence if you are always looking for the next exit. It will cause you to miss ideas and opportunities for change. People can sense when you are looking for the next best thing. Leading from the bottom can be tough, but being committed allows you to see the value of incremental changes. If you persevere with a heart to serve, it is rare that you will not see progress and make a genuine impact no matter where you stand on the org chart.