Leading from Below or What Kelly and Nadler Tell Us

In the last few years, siblings of my concept of Leadership from Below have started to appear in many places. Today, I was encouraged to find the article Leading from below by James Kelly and Scott Nadler of the environmental consulting firm ECM in MIT Sloan Management Review. It turns out Kelly & Nadler’s article was published back in 2007. To them, leading from below implies fostering leadership within the ranks. While they do offer some suggestions to managers who want to take on more responsibility: things like

focus on asking what if questions, focus on influence, not control and openly discussing values not just value,

they still see innovation from the manager or CEO’s perspective – people who already are in a position to lead, even if they have a small role.

My perspective, in contrast, is bottom-up. Why wait to become a leader – just do it! I explore how people who take responsibility in fact may be more efficient leaders than those who are put in charge. I do not advocate destroying others’ leadership role, or questioning authority for its own sake. Rather, I find that the most salient way to approach any challenge is simply getting things done.

To some degree, the end justifies the means. If you think something should be done, convince those around you, and just do it. The more I started reflecting on this, the more I wished there had been a guidebook that I could have followed so I wouldn’t have made so many mistakes along the way. I didn’t really find one so I wrote one. Well, I know there might be resources out there that I haven’t considered. If so, I would greatly appreciate if you point me towards them. Throughout these blog posts, I will feature a variety of perspectives on bottom-up leadership, and share my ups and downs exploring a life that started from somewhere in the privileged middle. So, I guess it is leadership from below but not leadership from the bottom.

A Slight Dislike of Hierarchies

I developed my notion of leadership from below as a counterweight to traditional top-down leadership. Usually, leaders tell people what to do based on a position of authority within a hierarchical structure. A non-hierarchical, bottom-up leadership perspective is far from unique. However, I developed my own view, and I wrote it down. One could say it is based on my fieldwork in the US, Norway and Italy, on eclectic reading, on my experience from starting up businesses, from founding a think tank, and from having opinions about a great many things in fields where I at the outset had no reason to be particularly authoritative.

No, wait, let me give you the real impetus – I spent a year in the Norwegian Army. I recall being bossed around. I didn’t like it (but I loved it when I got my NAIS medal for markmanship). My colonel once brought me to his office to say that my attitude was fine if I was a general, but not fine for a private. He then said he recognized the attitude – he had been the same way. Then he scolded me for being as dumb as him. His advice was to just do what people told me to do. To fit in. To accept decisions that were wrong because it was the right thing to do. I guess this book, Leadership from below, I mean, is my revenge.

In short, for the good part of my youth I have been an opinionated bastard, or as the euphemism goes, an intellectual of sorts. However, I have always been an ideas-to-action kind of guy. Mere speculation and endless research was never enough. This is probably why I needed a break from university (I have spent time in a few, such as NTNU, the University of Naples Federico II, University of Liege, and UC Berkeley). Life as a researcher was too monotonous. I wanted more. I wanted to make an impact. Leadership from below starts there – with the wish to make an impact.

I will give some more explanation about how my own background quite nicely demonstrates that leadership from below works in a later post.

The Best of my 102 Footnotes

I was, initially, only vaguely aware of the vast management literature on leadership and only occasionally dove into it, hunting for insight. In fact, I feel most of it misses the point. It simply talks to leaders about how to lead. That is the wrong audience. Leaders think they know how to lead. Good luck trying to teach them otherwise! They only read management books to feel good about what they are already doing. Or to do some self-flagellation. Or to bear a long flight.

However, scan through my new book’s 102 footnotes and you will find some decent, eclectic reads that will really help you in your pursuit to lead whenever leadership feels good or necessary. My footnotes cover fiction design, programming, management, sociology, psychology, speed reading, and body language, including titles like Peopleware, The Psychology of Persuasion, Shibumi, and The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds

My best footnote might be number 37. It is long. It is complicated. It is partly Korean. In short, it is an accomplishment. Check it out…

The Origins of Leadership From Below

When I started writing Leadership from below somewhere back in 2004, it was loosely based on some findings from my PhD (2002) about the importance of presence and place in innovation and knowledge work. That was serious enough stuff, right? Yes, and I read statistics that said about ¾ person ever reads a PhD thesis. At this point, those of you in the know or who just apply lessons from Math 101 realize this means not even your adviser reads the whole thing. Having ¾ reader is pretty depressing if you have a message, but it is fine to get a degree. Clearly, if I was interested in readers I needed to change strategy. Less obligatory references, perhaps, and more free flow of ideas. No unnecessary jargon. Just the facts. Just the ideas. Just experience. Or whatever. I decided I was. Interested in readers, that is. So, I pondered on Leadership from below during slow breaststrokes in a Belgian pool (the Aspria in Rue de l’Industrie to be exact) in 2006 and 2007 and even got myself a copy editor in Amanda Fazzone (I still have her email – and she really is good – whatever you think of my book) who masterfully commented the draft. I finished my book on 16 February 2008 on a day I was not gainfully employed with anybody who could interfere, and self published it on the new, trendy, and yet somewhat unknown Lulu. I had just discovered online self-publishing. It was exciting and in the vein of the Internet – free, fun, and fantastic.

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