I’ve been thinking about the concept of leading from the bottom since I heard a panel session titled this from an upcoming conference. At the time, it was my task to determine if I fit into the panel, and in communication with the conference organizer realized that perhaps I did fit. At my current organization, I am clearly on the bottom. I have no supervisory responsibilities, no title that indicates any type of leadership. But when asked if I feel like I lead, my overwhelming answer was yes. I lead.
How do I know I lead? Because when I turn around, there are always people standing with me. Sure I might have a rogue idea or two, but through my 13 years of service from the bottom, I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out what is important and what is not. Now, not everyone who stands with me is a follower. Some are pretty important people in our organization. People who value my insights for one simple reason. Because I wasn’t afraid to speak the truth. Even when it was speaking the truth to power, one of the scariest things people in organizations do. And those people often listen, not because I have a title that requires them to do so. Not because I’ve got an obligatory seat at the table. But because I’ve earned the right to be listened to by demonstrating that I want what is best for this organization, even when it’s not best for me.
Earning the right to be heard isn’t easy. I do have fancy letters behind my name, but I don’t throw those around or believe that they make me smarter. Instead, I got involved, I worked hard, and I had the nerve to dream bigger than I can do as a person on the bottom. I never closed my door (oh, how I wish I had a door…) to anyone who came to me with an idea, or a task, or a project that they believed in. I volunteered to do the dirty work (yes…this means cleaning bathrooms). I volunteered to do the highly visible work. I volunteered for anything that my skills could be valuable to.
But more important than being heard, or gaining the respect of the people in my organization is the ability to support others. I try to listen more than I speak. I don’t speak unless I’m adding value. I haven’t had the luxury of being thrust into the spotlight in a very long time, but still I lead. No matter how terrible my day might be, or how stressful a task might be, I treat people with more than respect. I treat them the way I see truly them, which is as endlessly valuable human beings who are doing the good work that I love too. I am kind. I appreciate our differences as much as our similarities. I am brutally honest but never cruel. I give and seek advice from my leaders and my fellow bottom feeders. And when I’m given advice, I take it.
And sometimes I misstep. Sometimes I ask for forgiveness instead of permission. Sometimes I am called to the carpet for doing it. But I grow from those mistakes, and I never apologize for being bold. Because fortune favors the bold, even on the bottom. And if there has ever been a time in the history of this organization to be bold, that time is now.
We can all lead without titles. I believe that our middle managers have a responsibility to us bottom folks to remove roadblocks and allow us to shine. And that means recognizing our strengths and weaknesses and giving us opportunities to succeed and opportunities to grow. Because eventually, the bottom becomes the top. So if you’re a leader by title, and not a leader like me…watch out. Bold changes require bold actions. This bottom leader is looking for a way to outgrow you.