Directions Sunset

Leading Up, Down and Sideways

Feb. 25, 2022
Influence is more about relationships than placement on an organizational chart.

Often people think that leadership correlates with a position or a title: If your title is CEO, then you must be a leader. If you are in the position of team leader, then you are considered a leader.

In fact, title and position have little to do with being a leader. I would hope that organizations recognize team members with the ability to lead well and promote them into leadership positions. Or recognize some fundamental personal traits and then provide training and developmental opportunities so a person can grow to be a leader.

A second misconception is that leadership applies only to leading or directing subordinates in an organization. Or that leadership is only practiced by those who have direct reports.

In fact, leadership is not a position or a trait. "Leadership is a process of influence between a leader and those who are followers,” wrote  Edwin Hollander in Leadership Dynamics. Researchers Anderson, Spataro and Flynn define influence as "the ability to change the actions of others in some intended fashion." It is often said that, if you have followers, you are a leader. None of these definitions are based on position or title.

Within an organization, any person might have the character and competency to lead any other person in the organization, regardless of relative position on the organization chart. Therefore, if you tend to be a leader, you might influence people in the organization who are your peers or even your superiors. You might lead up, down or sideways.

Leading down is obvious; it is leading those whom one is assigned to manage. To lead down effectively, there must be relationship of mutual trust and respect between the leader and those whom they are assigned to lead. Of course, such leaders have a head start in that team members are expected to follow them.

Whether or not leaders have assigned teams, they have opportunities to lead in the other two directions, up and sideways. Perhaps a true test of leadership ability, leading up or sideways is solely dependent on one’s ability to build a relationship of influence with people who are not expected or required to follow.

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 encourage the growth and development of a person at a higher level.
  • To introduce thoughts, practices, or ideas into the organization beyond one’s area of responsibility.
  • From a personal perspective, another objective might be to build respect and influence within the organization.

Leading sideways is working to influence one’s peers and other people within the organization. The objective in leading sideways is often a matter of breaking down silos and building collaboration, towardseither a personal or a professional goal. Another objective can be an effort to move the organization to a place that others have not yet recognized, a sort of groundswell movement. Again, this leading sideways requires building a relationship of trust and respect where others in the organization are willing to accept, or even seek, one’s influence.

The Power of Influence

Early in my career, I had a position as a manufacturing engineer at a rough-and-tumble plant. The foremen were tough, the department superintendents were tougher and the plant superintendent, Rex, was the toughest. As a 20-something, it was hard for me to influence him. While I was working with the hourly workers in the fabrication shop, we came up an idea that would make their workday much more tolerable. But there was no way that I had the personal capital to push this rather outlandish idea through. Instead, in a casual conversation, I mentioned the idea to Rex.

Within a week, the maintenance crew was implementing “Rex’s great idea.” Rex was a hero to the guys in the shop. The welders no longer had to climb up and down several steps all day long. In return, I became friends with Rex, and he became glad to listen to my ideas.

With sufficient character and competency, you can influence people throughout the organization, potentially providing great value to the organization and also building a personal reputation as a valuable leader with potential for greater responsibility. (One caveat here is that good leadership up, down or sideways does not work at cross purposes with an organization’s proper vision, goals and strategy.)

Questions for reflection: Are you positively influencing those around you by leading up, down and sideways? Do you have the kind of leadership that shows up in all situations? Are you proactive in finding and pursuing opportunities to influence throughout the organization?

Ken Vaughan is president of New Horizon Partners, Inc., a business strategy consulting and leadership coaching and development organization. 

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