Chris Lorence: Leading at all levels


By Chris Lorence, ICBA

Leadership isn’t always about being the boss. We all know people who naturally take charge without being asked, influencing those around them and bringing about positive change regardless of their job title. Leaders may be appointed, but the act of leadership doesn’t require permission, opening the door for anyone to lead.

The traditional concept of leading from the top is not necessarily the most effective or the most beneficial to an organization. Quite often, peer-to-peer leadership naturally occurs while working on cross-departmental projects and initiatives. Research has shown that shared leadership can be extremely beneficial to an organization and very good for the morale of every team member.

More importantly, however, leadership can also be upward in direction. It is possible—and advisable—to lead those above us in the organizational hierarchy. Few bosses are perfect, and even the best leaders benefit from listening to others, whether it’s their C-suite executives or frontline managers. As a result, leadership can—and should—flow both ways.

But getting it right takes a little practice, and there are three key components to leading upward successfully.

  • Start by establishing credibility. It’s OK to think critically and to disagree with those around you as long as you back up your input and guidance with verifiable facts and real-life examples. Be open and honest. Communicate both good news and bad news clearly, and do so without blindsiding your boss or coworkers. The result? People will know they can trust you, and they’ll turn to you for advice in the future.
  • Connect with authenticity. If you have integrity (in other words, your argument is unbiased and is focused on everyone’s best interests), you are more likely to be believed and, again, trusted. Your goal is the success of your team, not fulfilling your own ambitions. Always be respectful, even when you disagree with your manager or coworker. Remember, they have a view or experience as well. It may sound obvious, but people are drawn to emotional warmth. Having said that, keep extreme emotions in check. People are also drawn to stability.
  • Know the vision and connect the dots. Understanding your boss’s values and goals gives you insight into how they make decisions. It doesn’t hurt to learn how they like to receive new ideas. When you become familiar with those variables, you’ll be better placed to anticipate their needs and suggest relevant solutions, even at a moment’s notice. Be strategic. Align your communication and objectives so they fit into the big-picture strategy and values of the organization.

There are many benefits from learning how to lead in multiple directions. Ultimately, it’s about discipline and working effectively with a team. It’s also about taking a proactive stance rather than waiting for change to happen. When you feel you can affect your work environment and bring about positive change that’s aligned with the organization’s objectives and mission, it’s good for business—and, ultimately, for you.

Chris Lorence ( is ICBA group executive vice president, member engagement and strategy