Having had the good fortune to work for some world-class corporations throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of working for some great leaders. It’s interesting to watch how a great leader can make such a huge difference in the direction of any organization, large or small. But they don’t do it by themselves.
In fact, good leaders lead, at least in part, by fostering and insisting upon leadership at all levels in the organization. The notion that leadership emanates from the top down is just plain wrong, at least in well-run companies. In great companies, leadership is happening in every direction, up and down, sideways, across divisions and departments – you name it.
So how does that work? Sometimes it’s hard to describe, but in the best organizations it is almost palpable – you can feel it. And as you feel it, you also become part of it. You know that you are also expected to lead. The CEO has clearly communicated the mission, we understand and believe in that mission and, as a result, we are responsible for leading others toward the achievement of that mission. We are expected and required to lead. Sometimes that involves leading others in our own department, or on other teams, those below us in the organizational structure, our bosses, coworkers, supervisors, vendors and independent contractors – managers and employees at all levels.
I titled this article “Lead Up!” as an example of how I can generally tell if an organization is really experiencing leadership at all levels. Clues are everywhere. Do the employees use the word “they” when referring to management? Do they have to get approval before responding to the requests and needs of customers, even when they may be outside of our normal procedures? A front line employee who clearly understands the company’s mission does not hesitate a second to accommodate a customer. And it’s always “we” and never “they”, period.
The university where I am currently is a great example of how the process should work. We have one mission: providing our students a world-class, real-world education. If a teacher, in an effort to provide a more engaging educational experience, tries something new and it bombs disastrously (it happens), there are no reprimands or repercussions. Let’s try something else. As long as we are always trying to accomplish the ultimate mission, we make leadership decisions at all levels in an effort to get there.
The sector really doesn’t matter. We need to lead up in manufacturing, stopping production when anyone in the organization sees something that is impacting quality. We lead up in retail sales or service organizations when we see customers with similar complaints, or product shortages, or requests for products or services we don’t current offer. We need to lead up in education at all levels, finding new ways to use technology, techniques and approaches to engage and educate students and prepare them for successful careers. An organization that fosters a spirit of leadership up, down and across all parts of the company is one that realizes that, regardless of position and job title, we are all here for one purpose – to provide our customers the best service we possibly can. Doing anything less is just not good leadership.
The solution? Lead up!