January 13

How to lead from the bottom at work


Why read this?

  • To help young career professionals to see that bottomness is something in their head, and they can still continue to grow the organisation where they are
  • to help you to have practical anchors to use to grow organisations wherever they are


You’re a junior in your organisation.

You’re at the absolute bottom of the food chain.

It sucks, doesn’t it?

You might find yourself having a great idea, but not being able to push it through because you’re junior.

Why should anyone listen to you?

And then you’re being asked to carry out some (seemingly stupid) orders from “The Management”.

Whatever that even means.

Who’s the management anyway?

Don’t get me wrong.

I’m not asking you to start an uprising, and to raise a revolt.

Power to the masses!

Topple the dictator!

No, no, we’re not doing that in this article.

Instead, I want to share today how you and I can lead from the bottom.

Yup, you didn’t read that wrong.

Leading from the bottom.

Can you even lead from the bottom?

Great question.

Is that possible?

Without formal authority, or even the job title, can you lead from the bottom?

Traditional career advice might say – please your boss, make him look good…

But leading from the bottom? Can you do that?

The answer is yes.

Why yes?

Think about the greatest manager you had.

What was it about him/her that made it so easy to work with?

Let me guess.

You listened to him not only because of his job title.

But it was because of his moral authority.

There’s a distinction between moral and formal authority.

Moral authority is primary greatness (character strengths);

formal authority is secondary greatness (position, wealth, talent, reputation, popularity).

Stephen Covey, The 8th Habit

You listen to your leader because of his character strengths. You might find him an authentic person.

Full of integrity.

He is reliable and does what he says he would do.

Not only because of his job title.

In other words, even if you were at the bottom of the organisation, you still can lead.

Because of your character strength, and not because you have a fancy job title.

First, the executives must define the inside and the outside of the organization by reference to core values and purpose, not by traditional boundaries.

Second, executives must build mechanisms of connection and commitment rooted in freedom of choice, rather than relying on systems of coercion and control.

Third, executives must accept the fact that the exercise of true leadership is inversely proportional to the exercise of power.

Fourth, executives must embrace the reality that traditional walls are dissolving and that this trend will accelerate.

— Jim Collins, in his book Leading Beyond the Walls

Why lead from the bottom?

It’s tempting, isn’t it?

To just sit and do as you are told.

I’m not saying that’s wrong.

But I’m saying that the ideas you have about improvements, about initiatives, about anything, might go down the drain.

Isn’t that a waste?

That you could genuinely make meaningful changes…

But you left that on the table.

And that’s a definite recipe for disengagement from work.

Do as you are told.

It’s not about being different, or being difficult to manage or work with.

Rather, it’s about ownership.

Owning the work you do, rather than feeling that the work you do, belongs to someone else.

That you have to do what others tell you to.

It moves you beyond blame.

It’s easy to say,

Oh this place is horrid!

My bosses are lousy!

The workflows are SO inefficient!

Here we go again.

Complain, blame, find another problem to complain about.

Blaming leaves us at the bottom.

When we blame, we give power away.

We put power to change in the hands of those we are blaming.

We leave ourselves powerless.

Instead, looking at your circle of control, as Stephen Covey points out, is much more useful.

What can you realistically do?

What can you control?

What can you change?

Start from there.

How do you lead from the bottom?

Well, the million dollar question.

Can I be honest?

I don’t have this all figured out.

All I have are battle scars to show for trying.

You might think some of it doesn’t make sense. Drop a comment below. What has worked for you, and what doesn’t?

Don’t take it personally.

A caveat before we start.

Leading from the bottom, can be very painful.

Organisations can be like beasts. They are living things that can chew you up, swallow you, and spit you out.

You can get hurt by it.

Very hurt.

If you’re not ready, don’t read on.

If you are, let’s go.

People can be very resistant to change.

People are going to fight back, hurt you with their words, or speak bad of you, behind your back.

It’s human.

And if you’re human, you’re going to get hurt by these actions.

Don’t take it personally.

Whenever you feel hurt by something that someone says, or someone does, let the feeling sink in.

Don’t try to mask it, suppress it, run away from it.

Face it.

Process it.

In Brené Brown’s book, Rising Strong, she talks about how she processes difficult incidents by writing ‘shitty first drafts’.

In these drafts, she writes everything she feels, and lets herself go on the page.

I’ve done that many times.

And each time, it gets better.

Not taking things personally is not about saying:

Oh this doesn’t affect me.

But it’s about saying,

Yes, this is painful.

And what you’re doing to me, is painful too.

But I choose to fight on.

Not taking things personally is also not letting criticism damage your identity.

Recognise that people can be upset and they can say nasty things about you:

John is an idiot!

John is so lazy!

He’s so horrible!

But that there’s a difference between insulting your behavior, and insulting your being.

Taking it personally is about letting criticisms affect your self-esteem. How you look at yourself. It’s about melding criticisms about your behavior (what you do) to become insults about who you are.

Don’t fall into that trap.

I find it helpful to tell myself,

I might have done something wrong…

But I am not a mistake.

Find your tribe.

find your tribe
It’s not about finding your tribe, but also building it.

Leading from the bottom can be very lonely.

Find people who think like you. Who see the same problems that you do.

Work on a project together.

Impress your bosses with an initiative or project that you execute together.

Build your tribe. Contribute to them. Grow them.

Play positive politics.

Politics has gotten quite ugly recently.

You might refuse to play office politics.

Politics is about increasing your power in the organisation. Sometimes, that can get ugly.

Don’t think of politics as being something dirty, or manipulative.

Rather, you can look at it as something positive.


If you want to push through something, you need to have buy-in from the people in power.

How do you do that?

To start, maybe it will help to stop thinking of politics as something negative, but as something neutral.

It’s how you play it which makes it negative.

For example, I found a colleague that seemed resistant to everything I was suggesting.

Well, I had a choice.

I could make her look bad in front of the boss.

But I chose to speak to her honestly, and ask her how things had been.

To see her as a person, who might also be struggling at certain aspects of her job. Seeing me propose more changes might be threatening!

I ended up asking:

Is there anything I could do to help?

There, politics doesn’t have to be negative. Instead, it’s about recognising that it’s how you play it, and why you’re playing it, that can make it a force for good.

Secondly, be aware of how power is negotiated within the organisation.

Ever had that experience?

Where you see certain colleagues getting everything through, but you?

Your ideas keep getting stuck.


Do you know how power is shared within the organisation?

Which colleagues have great influence over their bosses?

Learn from what they do. If you don’t know, ask!

Some questions that might help:

  • How do they convince the boss? Is it through a private conversation, or through an email?
  • What was their idea about? What was it focused on?
  • When’s the right time to talk to the boss?
  • Where’s the right place to talk to your boss?

Know your boss.

Ask your boss what he wants.

Often, we try to mind-read and guess what our bosses want.

What’s the difficulty in asking?

As Bruce Tulgan, the author of The Art of Being Indispensable, found, ensuring extreme alignment with your bosses ensures that you are effective.

It’s no point trying to lead from the bottom, if you don’t know what your leader is even interested in.

Live to fight another day.

You’re going to lose some fights.


But let go of it.

You can appeal, continue pushing, but you might end up knocking your head against the wall.

Over and over again.

I’m not asking you to give up on important causes.

But I’m asking that some things, where you are, might not be worth fighting.

The organisation is not ready.

And if they are not ready, forcing them to be ready, will not make them ready.

Stop fighting cat-fights.

Ever seen cat fights?

There’s lots of loud sounds, screaming, shrieking, and at the end of the day… you’re not sure if there’s a resolution.

Conflicts at work are inevitable.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t fight them. Or avoid them!

But I’m saying that it might be useful to think:

How important is it?

This simple slogan, from Al-Anon, a support group that supports friends and families of alcoholics, reminds us that not all things are created equal.

Some things, are more important than others.

And it’s about fighting the most important ones.


I recently had a fight with a manager.

There were many consequences for that fight.

What did I get from that?


Didn’t get the change I wanted, didn’t get the influence I hoped for, and didn’t get the idea through.

When I walked away, I thought to myself…

Was it really worth it?

At the end of the day, I would say…



Because I might have gotten negative consequences, but I also got something else.

A lesson.

That in leading from the bottom, our biggest failure is not that we try and fail.

It’s that we fail to even try.

Our biggest failure is not that you fail, but that you fail to try.


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