This blog post has been adapted from Dr. John Maxwell’s leadership development resource, How to Lead When Your Boss Can’t (or Won’t). John Maxwell has been one of the world’s foremost personal and professional leadership experts for more than 40 years, and this guidebook offers his insight on stepping up to help others lead. You can pick up your copy here.
You’ve probably heard it said that people don’t leave bad jobs – they leave bad managers. And studies show this to be true: one GoodHire survey of 3,000 American employees found that 82% would consider quitting over a bad boss, and a Gallup poll of more than 7,200 found that 50% actually had.
But more often than not, we do not have the luxury of choosing who leads us. Whether we are bound to a subpar leader at work, in the ministry, or on the PTA, sometimes it’s up to us to help lead them.
Leading from Any Level
Let’s start with one hard, but necessary truth: it is not your job to “fix” your leader. Nor can you. Some people can “fix” themselves – if they realize they have a problem, want to grow, and are willing to work toward it. Instead, what you are doing is finding ways to work with your leader, not against them. You are partnering with them to do what’s best for your team, your organization, and your end goal – whatever that may be. These six steps will help you do just that:
1. DEVELOP A GENUINE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE LEADER.
The first natural reaction most people have when working for a bad leader is often to withdraw from him or her and build relational barriers. It comes from the urge to protect themselves. Fight that urge. If you make your leader your adversary, you will create a no-win situation.
Instead, build a relational bridge. Try to get to know him or her. Find common ground. Build a solid professional relationship. And in the process, reaffirm your commitment to the mission you’ve come together to forward. Doing those things will put you on the same team. Your leader’s inability to lead doesn’t mean you have to make them your enemy.
2. IDENTIFY AND APPRECIATE THE LEADER’S STRENGTHS.
Everybody has strengths – even an ineffective leader. Strive to find them in the person you’re working for. It might not be easy – it’s possible their strengths aren’t qualities you value or admire. But that doesn’t matter. Are they kind, creative, detail-oriented, outgoing, able to focus, able to dream? Look long and hard to find positive traits. Search for skills. Ask about background, education, and past experiences. Anything and everything. And then think about how those positives could benefit the team, organization, or cause.
3. COMMIT YOURSELF TO ADDING VALUE TO THOSE STRENGTHS.
The pathway to success lies in maximizing your strengths. That’s also true for your leader. Once you have discerned what these strengths are and how those characteristics can be an asset to the ultimate goal, look for ways to help your leader leverage them.
Now, this is a big ask for some. “Why should I help my leader if they’re not interested in helping themselves?” you might be asking. And no one can blame you. But what’s the alternative? If you don’t do your best and help your leader do the same, are you helping your organization? Don’t allow your negative feelings sabotage your end goal. If you want to get unstuck from your current situation, you must take the high road and help your leader.
4. FIND WAYS TO COMPLEMENT THE LEADER’S WEAKNESSES.
Wise leaders not only leverage their strengths, but they also staff their weaknesses. They empower people who work with them to fill their talent gaps. You may not be working for a wise leader, but you can still fill in the gaps for them. You probably have an idea of where they could stand to improve.
Be very careful how you approach this subject. Don’t point out weaknesses, and don’t assume your leader is aware of them. Instead, consider asking them where they would like more help. If they mention an area of weakness, offer to fill that role, or help someone else fill in that gap. You’re freeing up your leader to do what they do best.
5. EXPOSE THE LEADER TO GOOD LEADERSHIP RESOURCES.
If you’re working to improve your leadership skills, then you’ve probably discovered some great leadership books, podcasts, YouTube series, or other resources. (And if you’re looking for some, we publish free leadership resources every week.) Share them with your leader.
Again, the approach you take is very important. Instead of highlighting their need for the insight, try making it a recommendation: “I just finished this book, and I thought you might enjoy it too.” Or if you find some kind of connection or hook that you think might appeal to them, bring it up: “I saw this speaker online, and he tells the funniest story that reminded me of you.” If that resource is well received, try following it up with others.
6. PUBLICLY AFFIRM THE LEADER.
Some people fear that if they say positive things about an ineffective leader, they will be misleading others or compromising their integrity. Some worry that others will think they have poor judgment. But other people are already aware of an ineffective leader’s limitations, and as long as the affirmation you speak is truthful and focuses on their strengths, it won’t reflect badly on you. What it will do is improve your relationship with your leader and increase your influence.
And as you help your leader on their leadership journey…
Don’t forget to invest in your own leadership development. On our (free!) upcoming 30-minute webinar hosted by John Maxwell, Freedom Financial Group founder Marissa Nehlsen will share the principles that took her from food stamps to financial security, and then beyond. Register here to attend October 18th at 12 PM ET.