Leading Up When It’s Difficult
You might serve in a difficult situation. Perhaps your boss is demanding or unwilling to change. Maybe the culture is less than healthy. Or it seems like everyone is on their own, doing their own thing.
Trying to make a difference in these circumstances is difficult, and can at times seem impossible.
Take hope, it is possible, and learning to lead up will make a significant difference.
The art of leading up won’t solve everything, but will help you make huge improvements and enjoy your job!
Leadership is influence. It’s not about title and position. It’s not based on your place on the org chart. These things define your organizational context, but very quickly fade compared to real influence. My long time friend and mentor, John Maxwell would call leadership based on title and position Level One leadership. (See The Five Levels of Leadership, by John Maxwell.) The greater your real influence, in time, the farther you will rise in organizational structure.
This post is not intended to address the rare and extreme cases, such as being personally mistreated, a toxic culture, or where sin is involved.
My intent is to address the more common situations where you might feel stuck, unheard, gifts not utilized, share a very different perspective, or strongly disagree. Even though this can be frustrating, it is not uncommon and can definitely be improved if not fully remedied.
Internal Action Steps:
1) Let’s start with the fact that the person above you is there for a reason. More than one person thinks that’s a good idea. It’s your responsibility to honor that relationship. Serve well. Don’t do end runs. Don’t have hallway conversations to gain allies who will join your perspective. Your circumstances may be difficult, but your approach makes all the difference.
2) Emphasize what is good and focus on gratitude.
It’s never all bad, and what you look for you will find. Look for the good and live there.
Admittedly, I’ve been blessed to work with and for amazing leaders in fantastic environments. That said, the work isn’t always easy. There are tough seasons for all of us, right? What I always know to be true is that when I’m grateful for what I have, my experience is always better. When I intentionally express gratitude, my perspective is better as well. I’m confident this will work for you as well.
3) What do you need to work on?
The best way to improve a difficult situation is to start with yourself. You may be doing a great job and display a fantastic attitude. If so, great! But all of us have room for improvement in either competence or attitude. Be honest with yourself and invest time in serious prayer. What leadership skill needs to be improved? Is there something about your spirit that needs a tune up?
External Action Steps:
1) Find a way to add value.
Focus your ministry efforts on what is positive and solution oriented. Be a productive team player and make the difference you can make. Invest your energy there! Others will notice your effort and contribution and that will effect change all of its own.
2) Keep a private journal for change.
Write down the things you think need to be changed. Keep the list a minimum of 30 days before you say anything. 90 days is much better. It’s amazing what happens in 90 days that makes something that was frustrating no longer really matter. As time progresses, if the issue remains or possibly gets worse, keep it on the list.
Then prioritize that list focusing in on your top three concerns. (Three is the max, one or two is better.) The reason for a short list is that you want to discover the potential for change and the overall receptivity to your voice, more than focusing on any one issue. You can “win” an issue without changing the overall circumstance. It’s the big picture that matters.
3) Have the tough conversation.
The previous steps help you build toward the sometimes difficult but necessary conversation. These conversations go dramatically better when you first do all that I’ve written about in the previous internal and external steps.
At all costs you want to avoid a heated and reactionary approach. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it, and how you’ve prepared. Speak from your heart and speak truth. It is often a good idea to seek wise counsel from a trusted mentor, outside your church, who is ahead of you in life’s journey. Pray much, give honor, and seek not to win, but to serve well and advance your church’s mission.
For further insights on leading up, pick up a copy of John Maxwell’s book, The 360 Leader.