Lead Up, Down, and Sideways

Mention leadership and oftentimes people think only in terms of leading as a position. They might think of an elected official, an executive, or someone else that has a position in which they are expected to lead. But leadership is quite separate from the title or position.

Leadership is influence. Researchers Anderson, Spataro, and Flynn define influence as “the ability to change the actions of others in some intended fashion.” Most people desire to have influence in a wide variety of settings. This can include family, community, organizations, and the workplace. This abiity to lead or influence is a result of character and competency, in other words, who you are and what you know and do.

In the workplace one has the opportunity to lead more than just those who are a team or who are appointed as subordinates. If a person wants to have an impact on the organization, they should lead up, down, and sideways. Leading down is obvious; it is leading those that one is assigned to manage or lead. (In other articles we have drawn the distinction between leading and managing, so we won’t repeat it here.) Whether a person has a team to lead or not, they also have an opportunity to lead in the other two directions, up and sideways. Perhaps a true test of one’s leadership ability, leading up and sideways requires one to use the character and competency of leadership without any benefit of position. Leading up or sideways is solely dependent on one’s ability to build a relationship of influence.

Leading up is behaving and communicating in a way that influences those in higher levels of the organization. The objective in leading up is likely to be one of the following:

  • To move the organization toward a vision or goal that higher levels might not yet see.
  • To build respect and influence within the organization as part of career development.

To do so often means going beyond the normal responsibilities of one’s job. It means building a relationship of influence where one demonstrates the character and competency of leadership in dealing with those in the hierarchy. Leading up the organization can require developing ideas that are then delivered and claimed by people up the hierarchy. This can require a broader perspective than being concerned about receiving credit.

Leading sideways is working to influence one’s peers and others in the organization. The objective in leading sideways is often a matter of breaking down silos and building collaboration, towards either a personal or a professional goal. To lead sideways requires building a relationship of trust and respect where others in the organization are willing to accept one’s influence. Again, this relationship is a function of one’s character and competency. (See this article for an example of effective sideways leadership.)

Unless a person is at the top of the pyramid, every member of an organization has an opportunity to lead or influence those around them. Good leadership always benefits the organization and often leads to promotion and a greater opportunity for influence. (One caveat here is that good leadership does not work at cross purposes with an organization’s proper vision, goals, and strategy.)

Are you positively influencing those around you by leading up, down, and sideways?

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