how to be a leader at work

How to be a Leader at Work, Regardless of Your Job Title

If I were to ask you to give me an example of a leader, you would most likely suggest a great person in history who has been immortalized as a symbol of their particular era due to great individual effort and forward-thinking; people such as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Steve Jobs. You would almost certainly not suggest the people in the periphery of these great men’s lives: wives, advisors and assistants who, in all fairness, had every bit as much to do with their success as they themselves.

Leadership, by definition, implies that there is more than one person involved in accomplishing a particular endeavor. Leadership is not a set of keys bestowed upon the individual who finds herself at the top of a hierarchy of a group of people or organization. Rather, it is a blend of personality traits that, when combined, allow an individual to have some amount of influence over his peers. And so, if you view leadership as a set of personality traits instead of the consequence of a person’s job title, it quickly becomes clear that anyone can display leadership if they know how to exercise those traits. However, since most organizations do have a clear chain of command, it becomes very important to understand how to best display leadership based on your position in the hierarchy.

I recently discovered a book entitled “Extreme Ownership”, a succinct and deeply moving description of the triumphs and tragedy during Operation Iraqi Freedom, written by two ex-Navy SEALs, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The book is in part a war story, a poignant yet respectful narrative detailing the risks and sacrifices that the United States Armed Forces make every day with little acknowledgement from the civilian populace, and for that alone it is worth reading. But mostly, this book is about taking the leadership principles derived from the most efficient fighting force in the world, the U.S. Navy SEALs, and applying those principles to the world of business. There are many principles detailed in the book, and if you are interested I encourage you to check it out for yourself. However, there was one principle that particularly resonated with me, so much so that I felt the need to share it. In this book, Willink and Babin suggest that individuals have the ability to exhibit leadership, or not, irrespective of their job title or position. They refer to this principle as “leading up and down the chain of command,” and for clarity I will use the same language below.

If you view leadership as a set of personality traits instead of the consequence of a person’s job title, it quickly becomes clear that anyone can display leadership if they know how to exercise those traits.

Oftentimes, in workplaces with a clearly defined “chain of command” or corporate hierarchy, employees fall into a trap of thinking that their primary responsibility is to execute their boss’s commands, even if they privately disagree with a decision that was made, or do not understand the decision in the first place. Likewise, managers often assume that their subordinates have a clear or innate understanding of the larger mission, and they therefore expect that employees will prioritize and execute smaller tasks in a way that will help to accomplish the overall goal. Unfortunately, neither the manager nor the rank-and-file employee typically has a perfectly clear understanding of what is involved in performing the other’s job on a day-to-day basis. It is in this gap of understanding the “why” versus the “how” that friction between an employee and her boss can sometimes arise. This gap can lead to arguments and inefficiencies, and can eventually affect the company’s bottom line if that friction escalates. This gap in understanding, when it occurs, is often an indication of sub-optimal leadership. However, although it may not be immediately obvious, leadership does not always need to originate from the top of the chain of command, but can potentially come from either end. 

Leading Down the Chain of Command

Imagine you are the CEO of a company that sells kitchen appliances. For several years, your business has been booming and sales have been steadily increasing year over year since the company was founded. However, over the last two years, it has been brought to your attention that sales growth has significantly plateaued. Through much investigation into the company’s financial records, it has become quite clear to you that, while the top performers in your sales force continue to increase their sales numbers each year, the bottom third of the sales staff has had noticeably stagnant sales numbers as of recent years, while some have even dipped slightly over the past two years. To remedy this problem, you and your CFO painstakingly recreate the compensation structure for the sales staff, removing the base salary in favor of a merit-based commission plan that would allow for up to a 50% increase in take-home pay for top performers. You celebrate this new plan as a triumphant win-win for everyone involved and proceed to announce the change to the company as a whole.

To your dismay, the reaction from the entire salesforce, including the top performers, is one of outrage and disgust. Over the next year, sales did not significantly improve as a result and many of the lower performing sales people were forced to leave the company due to lower take home pay. Upon issuing a survey to the sales staff, you found that the majority of the staff did not understand the sudden change in compensation, under the impression that the business was doing well under the old compensation plan, and were frustrated by the removal of their base salary. By changing the sales force’s compensation plan, you have essentially blindsided the junior members of the organization, who do not have the same big picture context as you do.

The point here is that human beings do not work in a vacuum, and to perform their best, employees must both understand the “why” of any decision made by senior leadership, and they must “buy in” to the overall mission of the company. As the CEO, you have a better understanding of the bigger picture than any other person in the organization. In contrast, junior level members of the organization are fully focused on executing their particular jobs. It is never intuitive to lower rank-and-file employees as to how their particular job helps to advance the overall mission of the company. As a senior leader, you must routinely communicate to each employee how their role contributes to the overall success, and you must ensure that their understanding allows them to buy in to the larger picture.

Furthermore, you will never be able to force an employee to buy in to a decision. However, by providing the full context that led to the decision being made, you can at least present a logical basis to show why that decision was the best one for the company. This kind of transparency will always be better received than taking a “because I said so” tact. If a junior level employee does not have this baseline understanding and perspective, they will not know how to effectively adjust their personal priorities in a way that aligns with the company’s mission. 

Leading Up the Chain of Command

Now imagine you are a field manager working for a large construction conglomerate. You manage a small group of workers who have been tasked to build a new office building for the company, which will eventually become a satellite headquarters. You have been given the budget and detailed architectural plans. However, recently you are finding yourself more and more micromanaged by senior executives. You have to provide daily updates on the progress of the assignment, along with lengthier, formal updates on a weekly basis. You then have to answer clarifying questions via email with increasing frequency. You are finding that all of this time spent exchanging information back and forth with upper management is taking away significant time you have to actually manage the project and oversee your workers. You feel as though, aside from being a nuisance to you personally, this could actually start to affect the timeline and budget of the project due to the fact that mistakes are not being caught as quickly as they should, since you are constantly predisposed answering emails.

If this type of situation sounds familiar to you, the first realization you must come to is this: your boss is on the same team as you. Your boss always wants you to succeed, because your success is inherently their success as well. If your superiors are not getting the information they need to make higher level decisions, you must take ownership of the fact that this is your fault, not theirs. They are not scheming of ways to make your life more difficult by forcing you to jump through hoops and follow made-up procedures. These are simply the mechanisms in place to get the information they need from you. Therefore, you can lead up the chain of command by making the choice to go above and beyond when it comes to pushing situational awareness up to your superiors.

If you do not understand why a decision was made, it is your responsibility to ask the appropriate questions to your superiors to understand why. This understanding is crucial for you to “buy in” to the decision and then communicate that decision to your subordinates. Do not be afraid to ask why a decision was made, but be sure to do so in a way that is humble and respectful, not confrontational. However, once your boss has made a final decision and you fully understand why the decision was made, to be a good leader you must then execute on that decision as if it were your own.

The following point is also crucial to understand: leading up the chain of command is much more difficult than leading down it, because you are unable to fall back on authority. When leading up the chain of command, you must use savvy and skill when communicating with your superiors. You must exhibit the highest degree of respect and professionalism in order to be a subordinate leader, and you must have the humility to accept any decision that you may not agree with. One of the most important jobs of any leader is to support your own boss. If you are able to do this consistently and authentically, over time you will gain the trust of your superiors and the respect of your subordinates. Once you have acquired this, your influence across the chain of command will grow. Your superiors will be more likely to accept your recommendations because you have demonstrated that you have their best interest in mind, in addition to your own.

Remember, leadership is not assumed to be the responsibility of those that find themselves at the top of the chain of command. Leadership is a set of personality traits that one can possess, and thereby develop and improve, to positively influence her peers.

Human beings are not robots, programmed to mindlessly execute a set of directions. In order for a person to truly excel, they must believe that what they are doing has a larger purpose, and they must understand, specifically, what that purpose is. In an organization, there is a chain of command that defines the individuals who make the decisions and the individuals who execute those decisions. Sometimes, a gap may appear between those two groups of people to the point where it is not entirely clear how the “why” and “how” are connected. While it may not be entirely obvious, the leaders are not always necessarily those at the top of the chain of command. Instead, the leaders are those individuals who take it upon themselves to close the gap. Leaders can come from the top, by pushing contextual information down to their subordinates, taking steps to ensure that the entire organization is aligned to the overall goal. Leaders can also come from the bottom, by pulling information down the chain and then taking ownership of the decisions made by their superiors.

Ultimately, wherever you currently find yourself within your organization, you can take action towards becoming a leader by communicating to others above and below you exactly what you need to perform your role well, which may include tangible requests but also intangible ones like support, encouragement, or feedback. But at the same time, you must also take the time to understand those same people’s perspectives on their own job, and ask questions to ensure that you understand their “why” and “how”, so that you can then better align yourself to them. Remember, leadership is not assumed to be the responsibility of those that find themselves at the top of the chain of command. Leadership is a set of personality traits that one can possess, and thereby develop and improve, to positively influence her peers. By actively working to increase transparency across the chain of command within your organization, you can slowly begin to build leadership qualities that will help your team perform better as a whole.

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