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How to Lead When Your Boss Can’t (or Won’t)

By John C. Maxwell | October 1, 2019
How to Lead When Your Boss Can’t (or Won’t)

I am extremely excited for today, because it’s the official release date for my newest book, How to Lead When Your Boss Can’t (or Won’t). It’s an abridgment of my book, The 360-Degree Leader, distilling my best teaching on the concept of leading up within an organization.

I’ve been studying leadership for over fifty years, and in just about every conference I’ve taught, someone has come up to me and said something similar to this:

“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 a terrible boss.”

It’s a space where a LOT of people live. They’re working somewhere in the middle of an organization with a boss who either can’t or won’t lead. And without any “official” power to make or implement changes, the person in the middle feels stuck.

They have ideas, they have suggestions, but they believe they have no voice.

Do you ever feel that way?

Do you ever feel like you could make a significant contribution to your team or organization if only you had permission to do so?

I’m going to share something with you that you may or may not know—and even if you know it, maybe it hasn’t necessarily transferred itself deep into your heart. Maybe it’s not something that you truly believe. I’ve said it and seen it for decades, so allow me to loan you some of my belief when I tell you this is 100% true:

Everything rises and falls on leadership.

If you’re rolling your eyes right now, hang with me for another sentence. Here we go:

Leadership is influence—nothing more, nothing less.

Now, I’ve been teaching both of those ideas for years, so much so that they are synonymous with me and my companies. We’re the leadership experts, the folks who can teach you to become a better, more effective, more impactful leader.

And yet people still misunderstand what leadership means.

Which brings us back to the number of people who feel stuck behind (or beneath!) a bad leader. They think of leadership in terms of positions and titles, in terms of roles and regulations, and because they don’t see themselves in that narrow definition, they conclude they aren’t a leader.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you can encourage a coworker who’s struggling, you can lead. If you can share an idea that sparks energy towards a goal, you can lead. If you can work with your boss to help them achieve their goals, you can lead.

I can’t go into the full details of the book, but let me give you the high points, to help encourage you to realize your own potential as a leader:

  1. You must lead yourself well before you lead anyone else. If you can’t influence your own behaviors and beliefs, you’ll lack credibility to influence someone else’s.
  2. You must find ways to work with your existing boss. Great leaders seek to build consensus, not lead coup d’états.
  3. You must develop your influence wherever you are. You can impact the lives of people who report to you, serve alongside you, or carry more responsibility above you, simply by looking for ways to add value at every opportunity.
  4. You must avoid landmines that would make your situation worse. You need to be smart, sensitive, and strategic to your unique circumstances.
  5. You must prove your worth daily and never stop growing. Leaders understand that every day is an opportunity to display their value to the team, and they fuel that value through personal growth in areas of skill and character.

Obviously, the book will help you so much more than just a simple blog post, so take this for what it is: an encouragement to you and your ability to make a difference in the people around you. We are in desperate need of leaders, people who want to use their influence to create positive change in themselves, their workplaces, and their communities.

Here’s what I know: you may not be the “boss”, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a leader. Leaders step up to add value to people, wherever and whenever it’s needed. Which means you can learn how to lead, no matter where you are—or who’s above you.

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