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5 ways to lead when you’re not the senior leader


by Carey Nieuwhof: If you were in charge, everything would be different, wouldn’t it?

But you’re not. At least not yet.

You think you’re right (you have some great ideas). And you’ll do anything to convince your boss to do what you think your church or organization needs to do.

Which leads us to the big question.

How do you affect change when you’re NOT the senior leader? How do you lead change when you’re a staff member or simply a volunteer?

I’ve written two books on change, so I get that question all the time.

It’s easy to think you’re powerless or that you need to try to work around a leader with whom you disagree. But neither is a great strategy.

So what do you do if you want to bring about change, but you’re not the key decision-maker?

If you do a little homework and learn to think differently, you can be exceptionally effective at leading change well, even when you’re not the senior leader. Even if you’re ‘just’ a staff member or ‘just’ a volunteer.


Here are five ways you can ‘lead up’ to your boss when you want to broker change:

1. Think like a senior leader

So you’re not a senior leader, but try to imagine that you were. Imagine the pressures and issues facing your senior leader and approach the conversation accordingly.

Think through how it impacts the entire organization.

Understand that your senior leader may have budget restraints and many other interests to balance, like a board of directors or elder board. Show him or her that you understand that and you’re willing to be flexible on some points.

Showing your boss that you understand the bigger picture is a huge step in the right direction.

As a senior leader myself, I’ll disclose a bias here.

When someone on my team comes to me with any idea, and I realize they have thought it through cross-organizationally (that is, they’ve thought through how it impacts the entire organization), I am far more open to it.


They’re thinking about more than just themselves.

They did their homework.

They helped me do my homework.

They showed me they’re leading at the next level.

I always try to be open to new ideas, but here’s the truth. Often before the person is done with their presentation, or we’ve finished the discussion, I’ve already thought through 15 implications of their idea.

If they show me theyve thought through the 15 implications before they got to my office, I’m thoroughly impressed and very open.

I’m not saying that’s a good thing; I’m just saying it’s a true thing.

And I think it’s true of most senior leaders.

When you think like a senior leader, you’re more likely to persuade a senior leader.

When you think like a senior leader, you’re more likely to persuade a senior leader.Click To Tweet

2. Express desires, not demands

No one likes a demanding person.

In fact, when someone demands something, there’s something inside me that doesn’t want to give them what they asked for.

I don’t always follow that impulse, but expressing demands damages relationships. Instead, talk about what you desire.

Show respect and tell him how you feel – don’t tell him how you think he should feel. And above all, don’t be demanding.

When you’re asking someone to change, express desires, not demands.Click To Tweet

3. Explain the why behind the what

As Simon Sinek has so rightly pointed out, people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.

Your best argument is not the what (we need to transform our church altogether) or the how (here’s how you should do it).

It’s the why (I think I’ve discovered a better way to reach families in our community and help parents win at home… can I talk to you about that?)

The more you explain the why the more people will be open to the what and the how.

Lead with why. Season your conversation with why. And close with why.

When you explain the why people become open to the what and how.Click To Tweet

4. Stay publicly loyal

Andy Stanley has said it this way: public loyalty buys you private leverage.

It’s so true. Your senior leader isn’t dumb; if you start complaining about how resistant your senior leader is, he’ll probably hear about it. Not only is your personal integrity compromised, but your senior leader will also lose respect for you.

In my mind as a senior leader, the team members who conduct themselves like a cohesive team always have the greatest private influence.

Your public loyalty will buy you private leverage.

Public loyalty buys you private leverage.Click To Tweet

The title of this blog post explains how we all feel at times (why can’t everyone see I’m right????).

But when it comes to leading change, respect and character will win you more points than your ideas.

Your character speaks far more loudly than any arguments you make. Loyalty and respect spring from your character.

Your character speaks far more loudly than any arguments you make.Click To Tweet

5. Be outstanding at what you do

I’ve left what I think is the most persuasive factor until last.

You know what gets the attention of senior leaders? Team members who are amazing at what they do.

If you go above and beyond expectations, exceed the hopes leaders have for you and consistently over-deliver results, you already have the attention of a leader before you walk in the door.

If you don’t, well, it will take a lot of convincing that you’re right.

Your senior leader knows how well you’re performing, and their opinion of you directly impacts their receptivity to your ideas. Don’t think of it as judgment. Think of it as discernment.

If you were thinking of investing money, which investment adviser would you listen to, the adviser who gets a 20% return for clients year after year, or the one who loses 15% of their client’s money annually?


Leaders respect the team members who consistently deliver above expectations. Before you get upset, think about how your respect fluctuates with other leaders. You do exactly the same thing.

The best way to get a senior leader’s respect is to be outstanding at what you do.

The best way to get a senior leader’s respect is to be outstanding at what you do.Click To Tweet

Leading at the next level takes more time

If you are going to lead up to your boss, you need to be able to manage your time like a next-level leader. When they see you value your time more, they will value your time more.

If you’re trying to find the time for what matters most in life, my High Impact Leader course, is my online, on-demand course designed to help you get time, energy and priorities working in your favour.

Many leaders who have taken it are recovering 3 productive hours a day.  That’s about 1000 hours of found time each year. That’s a lot of time for what matters most.

Here are what some alumni are saying about The High Impact Leader Course”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for providing the course again. It has absolutely made an impact in my life and family already that I can’t even describe.” – Joel Rowland, Clayton County, North Carolina

“Just wow.  Thank you, thank you.” Dave Campbell,  Sioux Falls South Dakota

A game changer.” Pam Perkins,  Colorado Springs, Colorado

Curious? Want to beat overwhelm and have the time to reflect, rest and reinvent yourself?

Click here to learn more or get instant access.

Speaking Of Leading At The Next Level, Two Can’t-Miss Events This Fall:

To reach the next generation, we have to stay relevant to them.

One of the best ways to stay relevant is to keep learning and growing.

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Orange Tour 2019 with Reggie Joiner, Jon Acuff, and many others will help you reach the next generation. Orange Tour is coming to 15 US cities this fall. I’ll be speaking in Irvine CA, Phoenix AZ and Austin TX.

You can register for Orange Tour here and get the best rates.

What Have You Seen?

If you want more on change, I wrote about effectively leading change in my book Leading Change Without Losing It.

Non-senior leaders, what would you add?

Senior leaders, what other advice would you give?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

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