Leading From Below

By Jason Brown

In the world of security, hierarchies are common and leadership tends to be associated with position or rank, but this need not always be the case. If you have the desire, competence and willingness to communicate your ideas you can lead from below (LfB). I would argue that in any well-run organisation, those who demonstrate a capacity to lead from below usually end up with a formal leadership position.

In this article, I have gathered thoughts from a number of leadership writers on the topic of LfB.

First of all, you have to wish to lead and be willing take the risks that putting yourself forward entails. This means being able to influence decisions and directions, not through position power, but through sharing good ideas and information and demonstrating a willingness to help others achieve their professional goals.

You need to understand your organisation, particularly its goals, structures and processes. This knowledge of how everything works lets you input your ideas at the right time with the right people who will recognise your contribution and willingness to help. Consider the issues impacting on your overall organisation, not just those in your specific duties, and take them into account when making suggestions. You are more likely to be heard and understood by those more senior.

In the Wall Street Journal report ‘Leading From Below’, James Kelly and Scott Nadler suggest that organisational change and development can only occur when there is leadership at all levels. They made a number of suggestions:

Make a decision to be a leader, do not wait to be told:

become less essential to the doing of routine work, free up time and energy for leadership, unlock staff potential

become aware of signals from outside your organisational unit and your organisation.

Focus on influence, not control – enlist your staff in a common cause:

adopt the perspective of the people you are trying to influence

do not hoard information, share it

aim to influence existing work processes, do not build new ones

do not worry about being proved right

keep things clear and simple

keep a sharp focus.

Make your mental organisational chart horizontal rather than vertical – connect with peers, make them your focus group

Work on your trusted advisor skills:

turn conversations into meaningful discussions that make people seek you out

listen more than you talk

ask questions that broaden people’s perspective

share what others have seen and done in similar circumstances.

Do not wait for the perfect time, just find a good time:

do not wait for an invitation

look for situations where complacency has been disturbed.

Taking responsibility is a key attribute. Accept your successes and recognise and admit any failures. Keeping a win-win approach to the fore is an important way of engaging and leading others, particularly when you can share opportunities with others and align their goals to yours.

You need to be open and generous with both time and information and accept and act on feedback. This is generally reciprocated and you will have the input to enrich your competence and influence.

This is demonstrated by the behaviours listed above. Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Leadership and Learning at INSEAD, summed it up in an interview in Global Network Perspectives:

I define leadership behaviorally. A leader is somebody who is able to set direction for a group, and then mobilize them toward that goal. I don’t get into personality characteristics because it can vary a lot. The common factors really are big-picture strategic thinking and the capacity to influence people.

In terms of vision, it’s being able to sense what’s going on in the world, see the unexploited opportunities and lurking dangers, and use that to figure out what to focus on and what not to focus on. With influencing others, it’s how you get people to see your view, how you get them to see it as their issue, not just your issue, and how you communicate in a way that makes them feel motivated, inspired, involved, and a part of things.

Lastly, I would suggest that you need to be authentic in your actions and words. This builds trust and influence. But do not forget to add a bit of humour; at the right time it will build camaraderie and reduce negative tension. Good luck leading from below. It is worth the effort.

Jason Brown is the National Security Director for Thales in Australia and New Zealand. He is responsible for security liaison with government, law enforcement and intelligence communities to develop cooperative arrangements to minimise risk to Thales and those in the community that it supports. He is also responsible for ensuring compliance with international and commonwealth requirements for national security and relevant federal and state laws. He has served on a number of senior boards and committees, including Chair of the Security Professionals Australasia, member of ASIS International Standards and Guidelines Commission and Chair of Australian Standards Committee for Security and resilience. As of February 2017, Jason has been appointed Chair of the International Standards Committee for Risk Management.