Leading When You’re Not the Leader

leader leading

If you were in charge, everything would be different, wouldn’t it?

But you’re not. At least not yet.

So how do you effect change when you’re NOT the senior leader? How do you lead change when you’re a staff member or simply a volunteer?

Because I’ve written on change, I get that question all the time. That shouldn’t be a surprise, really. Mathematically speaking, far more people are NOT the senior leader than are the senior leader.

It’s easy to think you’re powerless and give up or just try to work around a leader you disagree with. But neither is a great strategy.

So what do you do if you want to bring about change but you’re not the key decision maker?

Here are the five best strategies I’ve seen. I’ve observed these both when people are leading up to me and used them when I’m leading up to others more senior than me in an organization.

If you do a little homework and learn to think differently, you can be exceptionally effective at leading change well, even when you’re not the senior leader. Even if you’re ‘just’ a staff member or ‘just’ a volunteer.

1. Think Like a Senior Leader

So you’re not a senior leader, but try to imagine that you were. Imagine the pressures and issues facing your senior leader and approach the conversation accordingly.

Think through how it impacts the entire organization.

Understand that your senior leader may have budget restraints and many other interests to balance, like a board of directors or elder board. Show him or her that you understand that and you’re willing to be flexible on some points.

Showing your senior leader you understand the bigger picture is huge.

I’ve spent many years as a senior leader, and I’ll disclose a bias here.

When someone on my team comes to me with any idea and I realize they have thought it through cross-organizationally (that is, they’ve thought through how it impacts the entire organization), I am far more open to it than otherwise.


They’re thinking about more than just themselves.

They did their homework.

They helped me do my homework.

They showed me they’re leading at the next level.

I always try to stay open to new ideas, but here’s the truth. Often before the person has finished their presentation or we’ve wrapped up the discussion, I’ve already thought through 15 implications of their idea.

If they show me they’ve thought through the 15 implications before they got to my office, I’m completely impressed and very open.

I’m not saying that’s a good thing, I’m just saying it’s a true thing.

And I think it’s true of most senior leaders.

When you think like a senior leader, you’re more likely to persuade a senior leader.

2. Express Desires, not Demands

No one likes a demanding person.

In fact, when someone demands something, I notice there’s something inside me that doesn’t want to give them what they asked for.

I don’t always follow that impulse, but expressing demands damages relationships. Instead, talk about what you desire.

Show respect and tell him how you feel—don’t tell him how you think he should feel. And above all, don’t be demanding.

3. Explain the Why Behind the What

As Simon Sinek has so rightly pointed out, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

Your best argument is not the What (we need to completely transform our church) or the How (here’s how you should do it).

It’s the Why (I think I’ve discovered a more effective way to reach families in our community and help parents win at home … can I talk to you about that?)

The more you explain the Why, the more people will be open to the What and the How.

Lead with why. Season your conversation with why. And close with why.

4. Stay Publicly Loyal

Andy Stanley has said it this way: Public loyalty buys you private leverage.

It’s so true. If you start complaining about how resistant your senior leader is, he’ll probably hear about it. He’s not dumb. So not only will you compromise your personal integrity when you do that, you’ll also lose his respect.

In my mind as a senior leader, the team members who conduct themselves like a cohesive team always have the greatest private influence.

Your public loyalty will buy you private leverage.

5. Be a Part of the Solution

If you’re discontent (which you should be as I wrote about here), it’s not that difficult to drift into the category of a critic. Unless—that is—you decide to be part of the solution.

Offer help. Don’t end-run your leader, run with your leader on the project.

Be the most helpful you can be.

Volunteer to do the leg work.

Bring your best ideas to the table every day.

Offer to assist in any way you can.

If you won’t be part of the solution, you’ll eventually become part of the problem.

So be part of the solution.

Those are five ideas on how to lead change when you’re not the senior leader.

Do they always work? No … human dynamics are more complicated than that.

But they often work, and if they don’t, you will know you gave it everything you had and then you can weigh your options. (Click here for five signs it’s time to move on.)

Non-senior leaders, what would you add?

Senior leaders, what other advice would you give?

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