Leading From Within

The definition of leadership is quite simply, “to influence the behavior of another person.”  Notice the definition does not refer to a title, position, education, or formal authority over another person.  It is merely the ability to influence.  The literal definition is particularly important to understand for a discussion about leading when you are not in a “position” of leadership.  John Maxwell writes, “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.”  In fact, the most effective leadership comes from the middle of the organization.  That place where you have highly talented team members that are close to the action and can lead based on their privileged perspective and first-hand expertise.

The idea of leading from below runs counter to the conventional understanding that leadership is positional.  While there is nothing wrong with positional leadership, good leaders realize the power of those leading from below.  No competent CEO or President has ever said, “I have too many leaders.”  They see the value of developing leaders and empowering them to lead from where they are in the organization.  It can even be seen as an informal succession planning process, as great leaders emphasize developing leaders from within the group and create opportunities for them to grow.

Team members that aspire to leadership positions must be careful not to squander their ability to have a real impact by leading from where they are today.   I’ve mentioned a leader’s obligation to be a lifelong learner.  Consider the idea of leading from below a part of the learning process.  Refining your skills and techniques as a leader can prepare you to become more effective as you grow into more positional leadership roles.

Keys to understanding power and influence

We are all created in the image of God, and that means we are endowed with traits and characteristics that come from our Father.  This includes leadership.  Some may have been given the gift of leadership in different measure than others but we all have it and we are are all in a position to lead or influence (someone).  A high IQ, EQ, and general charisma can play into a leader’s effectiveness.  But, an understanding of human behavior and how power and influence work is helpful as we develop our leadership techniques, regardless of where we sit on the organization chart.

There are five widely accepted sources of power and influence.  Positional, Coercive, Reward, Expert, and Referent. 

·       Positional power is the influence that comes from the more traditional and hierarchical structure within the organization.  “The buck stops” with those who have positional or “legitimate power.”  People with positional power assign duties and direct activities for their team.  It is important for a person who holds a position of power to have earned it legitimately.  Positional power can be problematic if the person does not have the respect of their team.

·       Coercive power is the ability to influence behavior through threats, punishments, or sanctions.  This type of power can serve to keep performance within the standard framework created to maintain acceptable standards and drive desired behaviors.

·       Reward power is the ability to influence behavior through incentives.  Bonuses, compensation, and other benefits.

·       Referent power is the more relational type of influence.  The ability to garner the respect of your peers through genuine relationship building.  With relationships, comes comradery, trust, and influence.

·       Expert power draws on an individual’s ability to establish a high level of expertise in a particular area.  This expertise adds credibility to their voice and ability to influence others in the desired direction.

The five sources are all unique and can be effective, and it is helpful to understand the good and bad of each source.  Much like you learned about your strengths, these sources of power have a “shadow” side.  Understanding their shadow traits and using them in combination proves to be a very effective model.

The goal of understanding these sources is to create a plan of how to use the ones you control.  Some might be out of our control, and that is okay.  You will find those sources are not entirely necessary to have an impact.


Ask yourself these questions:

1.     What source or combination of sources of power are most effective?

2.     Can you pick out examples of the uses of power that had a positive and/or a negative effect on an organization?

3.     How do you lead up and still work within the vision set by senior leadership?

4.     What does a plan to lead from within look like for you?

a.     Baby steps?  What three things can you do to put yourself in a position to influence others and have an impact on the mission?