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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Lead through your boss

Q: How can a senior leader encourage junior leaders to act and make decisions when they find themselves without specific guidance? How can a junior leader know when it's right to take charge?

Leadership from below is a hallmark of military history. Battles have been won when those under the command of others rise up and take charge. Such are the lessons of military history, but translating them to the corporate or nonprofit workplace is not so easy.

First off direct reports are not taught to take charge; they are asked to follow direction. It is called management. And it works well, until crisis arrives. Then, as in the heat of battle, it falls to those with heart and conviction, and a desire to do something positive, takes over.

But you need not wait for a crisis to strike. Managers can make it known that they expect their employees to help in the leadership process. We see this all the time when senior colleagues are teamed with more junior ones to help them learn the ropes. That is a form of peer leadership.

But taking it step further, managers can encourage leadership from the ranks by delegating authority and responsibility. You start by letting people take the lead in projects, and you monitor the progress. You also make it known to peers that their colleague is the point person. He or she will be making decisions and be accountable for results.

It is one thing for a manager to invite direct reports to lead; that is a straightforward proposition. But asking a colleague to step forward without asking for direction from above can be risky. If you work for a bully boss, don't even try it because you could be fired. But if you have a boss who is open to ideas, or is clearly in need of help (and frankly what boss isn't?), then you can demonstrate initiative and offer to assume some responsibility.

You do this by working through your boss. You keep her in the loop about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Your ideas must complement the strategic direction of your firm. That is, you push initiatives that help customers, employees and stakeholders. You lead first and foremost with your ideas, backed by your gumption.

Leading from the middle is not an easy proposition but savvy managers can make it easier by making it safe for others to lead, and employees can take up the challenge, if and when they feel they must act for the benefit of the organization.

By John Baldoni

 |  April 22, 2010; 1:25 PM ET
Category:  Leadership development Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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