How to Lead Your Boss (w/o Being Fired)

Leadership, like innovation, is a both an overused and misused term. Many of us do not act as a leader, though we acknowledge that it's a "good" thing and a have list of people we like who exemplify the concept.

Why not us, though? Why can't we be leaders, especially at work? After all, it's a set of behaviors, not a position or function. Anyone can do it they want.

Few of us do, though. Because we know that sometimes being a leader can cost you BIG time.

A Leader's Burden

Recently I sat with a group of about 30 Nigerian entrepreneurs and executives as they discussed this problem. Several of them had difficult experiences with coworkers or bosses who wanted to keep doing things in a slipshod manner. The company was stuck using inefficient practices (to put it mildly) because of the "This is how we do things" mentality.

This is not a small problem in Nigeria. It robs the economy of billions of dollars due to lack of employee productivity, and the omnipresent "frictions" of doing business.

Improving these businesses started with individuals willing to take on a professional and social burden to change the way things worked. As junior members of a team, they had to lead more experienced, reluctant coworkers. Some were able to lead, and others failed miserably.

Why Leaders (Don't) Emerge

We tend to hold ourselves back by waiting on obvious opportunities to lead, wrongly assuming they will be handed to us with a promotion, or new title, or when we move to a different company. We would prefer they have no risk, either.

That's not what it's all about. Leadership begins with an attitude of setting the example for everyone around you, not necessarily just those below. That's easy - anyone can "lead" from a position of authority.

You can be at the very bottom of the org chart and still be a leader. What's required is a commitment to a mindset that often emphasize others first, and is willing to tolerate some risk. This defines the moment when people understand the difference betweenleadership and authority.

This creates a problem, though. Setting a good example can generate resentment in your peer group, even in the ranks above you, even if the behavior benefits everyone else more than youSometimes being a leader will get you marginalized, ostracized, demoted, or even fired. But why?

The Missing Pieces

Leadership requires judgment and an ability to clearly communicate. Without these things you are almost destined to fail because the people around you, the ones who are being led, resist your actions unless they happen to align perfectly with their own desires at that moment.

You can't start expecting new behavior without communicating to the everyone who will be affected. There are people below you, to your left and right, and above you who will all be confused or even put off by your unexpected shift in behavior, and your expectations for them to adjust.

They may think you are trying to one-up them, or position yourself for a new promotion, or steal their job. Or they may resent you because you changed in some meaningful way and that's a good excuse to justify their feelings.

Tactics for Leading Successfully

Let's go back to the group of Nigerians. They have a much greater challenge than people in the U.S., where labor laws give some reasonable expectation of protection against wrongful firing and discrimination.

As each person told their story, a pattern started to emerge. Outcomes ranged from runaway success to outright failure, but there was a hidden logic. The best results came when people followed three simple rules that let them lead a group in new and often risky directions, and they did it without any official titles or mandates.

  1. Explain the reason for the change before you try to make it.
  2. Never go around the person in charge.
  3. Share praise with the whole group.

This makes sense if you try to see things from the perspective of others. I am no longer surprised by the change, it has been framed for me by the person making it. I am aware of what is not changing (i.e. the boss still makes the decisions). And I am getting some of the accolades. What's not to like?

There are probably 1000s of ways to improve your workplace. If you choose to lead an effort to change, choose wisely. Communicate early and often, make sure it uses the existing power structure, and sprinkle the credit around like candy.

Good luck, and God Bless.