Making Waves in A Small Boat

Bailey Jarrell

What do you do when you’re not in charge? As an employee near the bottom of the “food chain,” I understand the daily challenge of believing in the potential of something but feeling powerless to make it happen. The second we’re born we are thrust into the harsh reality of living under authority, and that never really goes away. We learn to submit to parents, then teachers, law enforcers, bosses, the government, and the list goes on. Living under layer after layer of authority can be straining, especially if you’re a force to be reckoned with who passionately believes in making something the best it can be. The frustration is real, but you are not as constrained as you believe.

Your position within the hierarchy, whether that’s CEO or junior copywriter, is to make the company vision come to life and influence your market niche in every way possible. You may work at a giant corporation where the processes are a little rusty and change takes place at the pace of a glacier. Or you may find yourself as the leader of a startup and every decision is up to you, but you feel the weight of industry standards pushing back on your forward thinking. Whatever the case may be, you are empowered to lead exactly where you are without the necessary title or seal of approval you think you need. Before you roll your eyes and grunt a “yeah right” in my direction, let’s break it down.

Here are 5 practical ways you can lead up when you’re not the head honcho (or are running into the brick wall of industry traditions.)
Act like an owner.

An owner thinks proactively and challenges their own capacity in order to stay on top. They show up on time and put in longer hours when necessary to make sure the work gets done. Owners take responsibility for failures instead of placing blame, and they feel the glory and weight of daily victories or challenges, no matter the significance. Work is personal for an owner because it’s so much more than a job. It’s building a legacy, chasing dreams, and reaching for the stars because they can. The difference between you and the guy at the top is not the title of owner, but the ownership mentality. You can be everything described above without the official position because you can still show up to work every day with the attitude of an owner in the shoes of an employee. Chances are, with that mindset, you won’t stay at the bottom for long.

Speak up.

If you have an exciting new idea, share it. Keeping brilliance to yourself is detrimental to the success of the company, no matter who you are. Of course, not all of your ideas will be home runs. But you may bring something to the table that could radically change and improve the way things are done. Choosing to withhold fresh ideas that could revolutionize and advance the company for good is not an option. As an employee, you are hereby commissioned to become a solution miner. If you find gold, make it known. The minute you become a time card collector, rather than a highly invested contributor to the organization is the minute you lose the wind in your sails. Sharing creative ideas isn’t the only way to use your voice. For example, if you see something out of line with the company culture or values, say something. The purpose of speaking up isn’t to make you the office loudmouth who always picks a fight, but to position you as a trusted influencer among your colleagues. Seize every opportunity to lead through positive influence, and pretty soon the VP will be knocking on your door asking you for advice.

It goes without saying that diplomacy must be exercised if you use your voice and want people to keep listening.

Sometimes your new ideas will disrupt someone else’s old idea, and that’s never an easy battle. The “powers that be” will continue to invite your input if you exercise extreme tact in your delivery. Bulldozing your way into the room isn’t highly recommended, and you need to tread lightly until you’ve built trust with your listeners. All of that to say, when you have the capacity to speak up, do it.

Become the standard.

Are you unhappy with the office atmosphere and tired of your coworkers’ constant grumbling? Good, now go be different. Instead of conforming to the negativity of those around you, start throwing positivity around like confetti. Be the one who sets the standard, rather than being influenced by the low emotional quality of your peers. Influence with attitude. A negative vibe isn’t the only challenge for corporate atmospheres, though. You may be neck deep in a cut-throat, competitive arena where your co-workers are pining to climb the ladder of success, or maybe you’re up against a passive attitude where each day feels like a conveyor belt of tasks. Name your beast, and slay it. Figure out what is setting the wrong mood in your office ecosystem and start making it rain. How? By holding yourself to a higher standard for your own intentional behavior and thought quality. When you walk into a gossip circle in the break room, walk out of it. Instead of tearing down your peers who might pose a threat, boost their self-esteem and celebrate their wins. It doesn’t matter what is the current standard, become it and you will see your efforts ripple throughout the entire company.

Outlearn yourself.

The minute you stop learning and settle into the rhythm of post-college laziness is the minute you’ve purchased a ticket straight to the bottom. Just because you were really good at something once doesn’t mean you’re still the best. If you really want to be a part of influencing the people around you or even the entire industry, then you have to gobble up new information like it’s a hot meal. You don’t have to go back to school to become a student of life. Put self-development on your weekly task list and schedule it out. Sometimes you have to disrupt your current pace in order to start running faster. Create margin in your life for books, podcasts, lunches with other professionals, workshops…you name it. Don’t stop gaining knowledge because you think you know everything there is to know. You don’t. And that heavy dose of pride will get you nowhere, fast.

Capitalize on your team.

All of this “be the change you want to see” talk is great until it creates an unhealthy hero complex that isolates you from others. The greatest influencers in the world learned that real change happens when you don’t do it alone. We need people to keep us accountable to our mission and multiply change throughout the organization. Find one or a few peers who can catch onto your vision and help you make it happen, then give them space to share their own ideas and champion their excitement. Being a leader doesn’t always mean being the face of a movement, it’s empowering the brilliance in others and propelling them into action. In addition, what makes a true leader is not a badge of approval from the top dog, it’s taking initiative. Employees wait until work is given to them. Leaders proactively find work and get it done before being asked. Your level of influence directly correlates with the strength of your work ethic as well as the quality of your relationships and communication methods. Don’t wait until you’re handed the keys to the kingdom to become a leader. Decide to show up wholeheartedly and lean on the support of your team. As the saying goes, “many hands make light work,” which proves true wherever you are.

Leading from the bottom up is often beyond our comfort zone and can make us feel like radicals asking to be targets of ridicule. History tells us that many who risked the status quo to create positive change felt this same pressure as they trudged through opposition. Is it worth it? That’s for you to decide. But don’t think for a second that you need a special degree, title or salary to give you permission to lead. Your situation may never change, but with the right mindset and technique, you will greatly excel.

Little boats make waves, too. So set sail, my friend.
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