Common wisdom holds that individuals can’t be leaders or bring change to an organization unless they're at the top of the corporate hierarchy. But it's possible to be a leader even if someone is at the bottom.
Before accepting a job, try to figure out these three things about a workplace in order to be able to lead from the bottom:
1. Consider the organization’s culture.
Many people start new jobs believing they can make a difference. That means trying to make things better or attempting to change the status quo. Those seeking to be change agents should start slow, listen and watch to understand the organization’s culture.
Consider Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn’s Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument, based on their book Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture: Based on the Competing Values Framework. It distinguishes between types of four organizational culture:
A clan culture is a people-centered workplace where leaders invite and use input and feedback. Decision making is slow and leans toward what's best for employees. Generally the means justify the ends.
In a dynamic workplace with an adhocracy culture, leaders encourage small groups to explore radical innovation. Decision making is autonomous, rapid and decentralized.
In contrast, a market culture is a competitive workplace where leaders encourage internal competition between individuals and teams. Decision making is rapid and focused on results. Sometimes the ends justify the means.
Lastly, a hierarchy culture has a structured and formalized workplace where leaders seek to control people and coordinate processes. Decision making is slow and geared toward preserving the status quo.
Many organizations are a mix of cultures. Knowing a company’s culture and how it makes decisions will help someone understand his peers’ and supervisor’s expectations. To change things, don’t work in a hierarchical culture. To participate in rapid, radical change, choose an adhocracy culture.
Related: How to Lead Your Team Through Change
2. Consider the supervisor’s leadership style
An organization’s culture is often reflected in the supervisor’s leadership styles. The Competing Values Framework can be helpful in determining leadership styles.
A clan-oriented work team leader is a facilitator, someone who seeks interaction. He or she may also be a mentor, who aims to be caring and empathetic. This type of supervisor says, “What do you think?” or “How do you feel?”
An adhocracy-oriented team leader is an innovator, creative and visionary. “Here is where we’re going," she says. "Do you wish to join us?” Or better yet, she might say, “I don’t know if this is a good idea. Let’s find out.”
A market-oriented supervisor is a producer type who is very task oriented and decisive and directive. “Here’s our goal," she says. "See if you can beat it.”
A hierarchy-oriented manager could a coordinator or a monitor type, always collecting information and being technically astute. She says, “Here’s the process. Follow it.”
Knowing the supervisor’s leadership styles -- she will have more than one -- will clarify her tolerance for new ideas. Hierarchy-oriented and market-oriented managers are less interested in change than they are in performance. Clan-oriented supervisors are emotionally supportive but will also be empathetic about others who have something to lose. Adhocracy-oriented leaders are more interested in finding a better way and have a higher tolerance for risk.
3. Consider peers’ and supervisor’s gifts.
The type of culture and leadership style someone prefers has a lot to do with the way he or she is wired and that person's gifts. The ability to thrive, much less survive, depends on understanding one's own gifts and the gifts of others. A meaningful and authentic way to add value is to determine, compliment and complement others' strengths. Do this alone or connect others to people who have the ability and passion to make peers and the supervisor successful.
Thus it's possible to lead from the bottom. But that's contingent on being able to discern the culture and leadership styles of others in the new workplace before accepting the job. Interviewing for a new job should be part of a due diligence process. Then on the first day, begin to understand, recognize and enhance the gifts of others.