14 Ways to Lead When You’re Not on Top

“Most influence within organizations comes from the middle, not from the top.”

A hundred senior or lead pastors direct the Outreach 100 Fastest-Growing Churches, but thousands of staff are involved in making them what and who they are. Most of us aren’t in the top positions. Whether in large churches like the Outreach 100, or in a small church, nonprofit or start up, the majority of us as leaders reading this right now are not the man or woman at the top.

Regardless of what size of church or organization we currently serve in, we all have to become great at being a follower. An employee. A catalyst in the middle of the pack. Someone who leads but is ultimately not in charge.

Leading from the middle of the organization is tough. There’s lots of responsibility, but limited empowerment. Less money, but more work. More to manage, but less training. And on and on and on. But the reality is, most influence within organizations comes from the middle, not from the top. Those leaders in the middle of any organization are crucial to the success of the mission, vision and values being lived out.

Leading from the middle doesn’t exempt you from being a good employee. In fact, as leaders at any level in the organization, we should strive to be the best in all we do, not just “good” or “better.” Best is where we should want to live. Whether the one in charge or simply part of the team, our goal should be to create an environment that thrives on excellence and always strives to be the best. This is a challenge. For all of us.

I’ve discovered a few ways to be the best employee there is, and to lead from the middle of the organization. Here’s what it takes:

1. Write everything down.

Never show up to a meeting without something to write with and something to write on. And write it down. Everything. Otherwise you’ll forget. I don’t care who you are.

2. Honor people’s time.

When there is a meeting, show up early and finish on time. And constantly strive to lead your peers well. Don’t rely on the leader to be the only one motivating the team and holding the other teammates accountable.

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3. Come with solutions, not just ideas.

This is crucial. Move toward completion, not away from it. Ideas are great, but they always have to lead toward the finish line.

4. Learn how to anticipate.

Be one step ahead. Do something every day you weren’t asked or told to do, but know you should do. Understand what needs to be done next, before others, and always look for ways to make the process better. Figure out how best to serve your leader and lift responsibility from his or her plate onto yours. If you are creating more work for your boss instead of less work, that’s a problem.

5. Be a disciplined learner.

Understand it is your role to be an expert, no matter what level or role you play in an organization. Don’t just be one step ahead of your boss in being skilled at your job—be an expert.

6. Listen well.

Listen when in a conversation; don’t just think about what you are going to say in response. Listen for next steps, not just current realities.

7. Reflect most of the credit; take all the blame.

This is a great principle to put into practice no matter what level you are in the organization. Be a reflector of praise, not an absorber. Reflect and celebrate the success of your teammates and others in the organization. Absorb the blame if at all possible.

8. Never speak negatively of your peers for personal gain.

This is a hard one for everyone, especially when your boss or superior wants to pit you against that peer and see how you respond. Don’t give in to that. Stay above it.

9. Push back.

Almost every organizational leader I know wants their team members to challenge the process, question assumptions, bring new ideas to the table and push back when they don’t agree. Don’t be afraid to do this. If your leader is not mature enough to take this, then they probably shouldn’t be in the position they are in. If you are unsure whether you truly have permission to push back, ask for permission on the front end.

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10. Take on more responsibility.

Ask for more authority and involvement and you’ll be lifting the load of your employer or boss. That is always a welcomed conversation. Always.

11. Get it done! Good teammates are great finishers.

They get the job done. They take projects across the finish line. When given an assignment, your leader can be assured that you will get it done. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never screw up or fail, but it does mean you are worthy of being trusted.

12. Lead yourself.

Leading yourself means you don’t need to be managed, and aren’t needy. You don’t need all the attention from the leader. In fact, you actually push your leader, making him or her better, and you understand how to lead up appropriately and intentionally.

13. Lead like you are at the top.

Be a vision copycat. Take on, embody and live out the vision and mission of your leader and of the organization. Your perspective should be that of an owner. This means you don’t use the phrase “they are” but instead speak in terms of “we are.” Big difference. Remember, influence can happen from anywhere in the organization.

14. Understand your context.

Influence doesn’t require a title or position. You can wield influence from anywhere in the organization. Especially in today’s flatter and more entrepreneurial organizational structures. Celebrate the accomplishments and wins of those below you. Be a cheerleader and mentor to your team and those who work for you. Embrace the position you have. Don’t be bitter. Lean into it. Be the best in the world at your current role. Be present to what God has called you to steward right now, today.