Almost everyone in a nonprofit or ministry organization is leading both above them and below them in the organizational structure. Even if you happen to be the founder/CEO/director, you still have a board that you’re answering to at some level.


I’ve found that the employees who get the best results, see the most growth and are the most valuable inside of nonprofit organizations have figured out how to lead both the people “above” them and those “below” them.


In this blog post, we’re going to be covering one of those two concepts: how to lead up.


4 principles to ensure your leaders will never be able to live without you:


1. Become a go-to player

If you really want to have some sort of influence on those who have positional authority over you, the most important thing you can do is simply do what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it. This breeds more trust with those who lead you than just about anything else.


Every leader I have ever known is looking for the someone on his or her team that they can depend on each and every time something arises. Who wants the ball when the game is on the line? Who’s not afraid of the challenging task? Who on the team can avoid the extra drama that sometimes accompanies those crisis moments, and absorb the stress instead of creating it?


If that’s you, you will have a tremendous amount of influence with your leadership.


2. Invest in relational chemistry

Almost every leader/director/CEO of an organization that I know feels lonely to some degree. They feel the weight of the world solely on their shoulders.


And for good reason, most of us don’t feel completely comfortable just walking in their office and saying, “can we be friends?”. I’m not sure exactly what this is going to look like or what’s appropriate in your environment, but you want to find a way to let your leaders know that you genuinely care about them. Let them know that you know they have a tough job. Find out what dreams their passionate about and ask them how you can help them achieve them. If you want them to get behind your dreams, then get behind theirs.


3. Lighten your leader’s work load

This may be the single most important thing you can do to gain influence with your leadership, and it’s certainly one of the most important things you can do for job security.


When you find a problem inside of your nonprofit organization, provide a solution.


Most leaders are peppered day in and day out with all of the problems.

- Giving is down.

- Attendance is lower this year than last.

- There’s lots of staff turnover.

- Momentum is low.


They hear it all, and they feel the expectation to solve it all. So when someone shows up and not only identifies the problem but also suggests a solution, that person will instantly be a breath of fresh air and far more valuable than the nay-sayers who have no ideas for improvement.


4. Be better tomorrow than you are today

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sitting around with a group of nonprofit executives and one of them says something like, “I always prefer to hire people who I sometimes have to hold back than someone I always have to light a fire under.” It’s kind of funny, but essentially what they’re saying is doing something is almost always better than doing nothing.  There’s few things more exhausting to a leader than trying to lead someone who has no desire to grow.


In a nutshell, they’re looking for self-starters who take initiative and look for opportunities to enhance their skills.


Here are a few tips on how to keep growing:


  • Increase your capacity (and I don’t mean work more hours). Often this is about working smarter not harder.
  • Increase your skillset. Be a constant student of your craft. Years ago when I was leading a church, I found out that our music director who had been on staff for over ten years was taking voice lessons. His job was secure. He sounded great. But he wanted to get better—all on his own. That spoke volumes to me.
  • Be an owner, not a renter. Renters do the bare minimum to keep from getting evicted, while owners approach their work from a different perspective. They care. They’re invested. And it shows in their work. Take responsibility for the success of your nonprofit. Care as much or even more than the person leading you.
  • Sit down with your immediate supervisor on a regular basis and just ask them, “what’s one area you think I can grow in?” This will help you get better at what you do, while also showing your boss that you care enough to initiate your own growth.

As you read these four principles for leading up, think through how you can grow in each of them. I truly believe if we will just pay attention, we’ll start to recognize all kinds of situations where we can “lead up” and essentially become invaluable to the mission of the organizations we work within and gain influence with your leader and within your team.

The 5 strategies every growing nonprofit uses workbook