John Maxwell: Lead From Where You Are

UPDATED: November 1, 2010
PUBLISHED: November 1, 2010

I’ve taught leadership for over 30 years. And in just about every conference I’ve ever taught, someone has come up to me and said something such as, “I like what you teach about leadership, but I can’t apply it. I’m not the main leader. And the person I work under is, at best, average.”

You may not be a follower at the lowest level of the organization, but you’re not the top dog either—yet you still want to lead, to make things happen and to make a contribution. The reality is that 99 percent of all leadership occurs not from the top but from the middle of an organization.

The truth is you don’t have to be the president or CEO to lead effectively. So how do you do it? You learn to develop your influence wherever you are in the organization by becoming a 360-degree leader, where you learn to lead up, lead across and lead down.

What I will share with you over the next two columns comes from my book The 360 Degree Leader. This month I will talk about a few of the myths and challenges that come with leading from the middle.

If I had to identify the No. 1 misconception people have about leadership, it would be the belief that leadership comes from having a position or title. This position myth, that you can’t lead if you’re not at the top, couldn’t be further than the truth. The erroneous thinking of this myth is that leadership is position, not influence.

When potential leaders understand the dynamics of gaining influence with people, they come to realize that position has little to do with genuine leadership. You can lead others from anywhere in the organization, and when you do, you make the organization better. The bottom line is this: Leadership is a choice you make, not a place you sit. Anyone can choose to become a leader wherever he or she is. You can make a difference no matter where you are.

David Branker says, “To do nothing in the middle is to create more weight for the top leader to move. For some leaders, it might even feel like dead weight. Leaders in the middle can have a profound effect on an organization.”

Second, the destination myth says, “When I get to the top, then I’ll learn to lead.” These people think that something magical is going to happen when they reach their desired position or leadership destination that will instantly transform them into a leader. Just as an advanced degree from a distinguished university doesn’t qualify you to become successful in life, neither does reaching a certain position in an organization make you a good leader.

If you want to succeed, you need to learn as much as you can about leadership before you have a leadership position. Good leadership is learned in the trenches. Leading as well as they can wherever they are is what prepares leaders for more and greater responsibility. Becoming a good leader is a lifelong learning process.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said, “When opportunity comes, it’s too late to prepare.” Leading today is what prepares a leader for more and greater responsibility tomorrow.

Now, unless you are the CEO of your organization or own your own company, you face several unique leadership challenges. That’s true for anyone trying to influence others from the middle of the pack.

One of these is the fulfillment challenge: Leaders like the front more than the middle. The key to successfully navigating the fulfillment challenge? It’s not natural for a good leader to want to “stay put.” Leaders want to be in front leading. That is a healthy desire, but a leader in the middle has to know how to channel it.

Perhaps you’ve heard the old saying about the view from the middle of the pack. It’s said that when you’re the lead dog, your view always changes. If you’re not the lead dog, you always face the same. But the truth of the matter is that the dog in front of the pack isn’t the leader. The person driving the sled is—and that individual is actually in the back.

How do you become fulfilled in the middle of the pack? How do you develop an attitude of contentment and fulfillment right where you are? See the big picture. Start by doing the following five things:

1.    Develop strong relationships with key people. The trick to fulfillment isn’t making every interaction with others go smoothly; it comes from developing strong relationships with them. It’s more important to get along with people than to get ahead of them. If you make it your goal to reach out to others and build relationships with them, you’ll derive fulfillment wherever you are.
2.    Define a win in terms of teamwork. Coach Wooden said: “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.” In other words, teamwork is what creates success, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. One player may be crucial to a team, but one player cannot make a team. That is also true of leaders. One leader, no matter how good, does not make a team.
3.    Engage in continual communication. As you interact with your leaders, let them know how you are advancing the vision. Get their feedback and ask questions to find out if there are other things you should know to more effectively pass on the vision to others.
4.    Gain experience and maturity. Maturity doesn’t come automatically. My friend Ed Cole often said, “Maturity doesn’t come with age. It begins with the acceptance of responsibility.”
5.    Put the team above your personal success. When the stakes are high, good team members put the success of the team ahead of their own personal gains.

In all my years of leadership teaching and consulting, I have never observed an organization that had too many leaders. Organizations never have enough! Anyone tempted to believe their organization has enough leaders must mistakenly think that only positional leaders can lead. And since they have a limited number of leadership spots, they think only in terms of filling those positions. But leadership is needed at every level in every area of an organization.

Haven’t you noticed that organizations rise and fall because of leadership? Successful organizations cannot wait until someone gets to the top to start leading. They need 360-degree leaders now. Why? Because they add great value, and they help others to win. And that’s much more important than where they are in the organizational chart.

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