How to Lead Change When You’re NOT The Senior Leader

If you were in charge, everything would be different, wouldn’t it?

But you’re not. At least not yet.

So how do you effect change when you’re NOT the senior leader? How do you lead change when you’re a staff member or simply a volunteer?

Because I’ve written on change, I get that question all the time. That shouldn’t be a surprise, really. Far more people are NOT the senior leader than are the senior leader.

It’s easy to think you’re powerless, or to try to work around a leader you disagree with. But neither is a great strategy.

So what do you do if you want to bring about change but you’re not the key decision maker?

Not the leader

If you do a little homework and learn to think differently, you can be exceptionally effective at leading change well, even when you’re not the senior leader. Even if you’re ‘just’ a staff member or ‘just’ a volunteer.


Here are five ways you can ‘lead up’ to your senior leader when you want to broker change:

1. Think like a senior leader.

So you’re not a senior leader, but try to imagine that you were. Imagine the pressures and issues facing your senior leader and approach the conversation accordingly.

Think through how it impacts the entire organization.

Understand that your senior leader may have budget restraints and many other interests to balance, like a board of directors or elder board. Show him or her that you understand that and you’re willing to be flexible on some points.

Showing your senior leader you understand the bigger picture is huge.

I’m a senior leader and I’ll disclose a bias here.

When someone on my team comes to me with any idea and I realize they have thought it through cross-organizationally (that is, they’ve thought through how it impacts the entire organization), I am far more open to it than otherwise.

Why? Because

They’re thinking about more than just themselves.

They did their homework.

They helped me do my homework.

They showed me they’re leading at the next level.

I always try to be open to new ideas, but here’s the truth. Often before the person is done their presentation or we’re done the discussion, I’ve already thought through 15 implications of their idea.

If they show me theyve thought through the 15 implications before they got to my office, I’m completely impressed and very open.

I’m not saying that’s a good thing, I’m just saying it’s a true thing.

And I think it’s true of most senior leaders.

When you think like a senior leader, you’re more likely to persuade a senior leader.

2. Express desires, not demands.

No one likes a demanding person.

In fact, when someone demands something there’s something inside me that wants to not give them what they asked for.

I don’t always follow that impulse, but expressing demands damages relationships. Instead, talk about what you desire.

Show respect and tell him how you feel – don’t tell him how you think he should feel. And above all, don’t be demanding.

3. Explain the why behind the what.

As Simon Sinek has so rightly pointed out, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

Your best argument is not the what (we need to completely transform our church) or  the how (here’s how you should do it).

It’s the why (I think I’ve discovered a more effective way to reach families in our community and help parents win at home…can I talk to you about that?)

The more you explain the why, the more people will be open to the what and the how.

Lead with why. Season your conversation with why. And close with why.

4. Stay publicly loyal.

Andy Stanley has said it this way: public loyalty buys you private leverage.

It’s so true. If you start complaining about how resistant your senior leader is, not only does that compromise your personal integrity, he’s not dumb.

He’ll probably hear about it and he will lose respect for you.

In my mind as a senior leader, the team members who conduct themselves like a cohesive team always have the greatest private influence.

Your public loyalty will buy you private leverage.

5. Be a part of the solution. 

If you’re discontent (which you should be, as I wrote about here), it’s not that difficult to drift into the category of critic. Unless – that is – you decide to be part of the solution.

Offer help. Don’t end-run your leader, run with your leader on the project.

Be the most helpful you can be.

Offer to do the leg work.

Bring your best ideas to the table every day.

Offer to help in any way you can.

If you won’t be part of the solution, you’ll eventually become part of the problem.

So be part of the solution.

Those are five ideas on how to lead change when you’re not the senior leader.

Do they always work? No…human dynamics are more complicated than that.

But they often work, and if they don’t, you will know you gave it everything you had and then you can weigh your options. (Click here for 5 signs it’s time to move on.)

If you want more on change, I wrote about effectively leading change in my best-selling book Leading Change Without Losing It.

Non-senior leaders, what would you add?

Senior leaders, what other advice would you give?

Scroll down and leave a comment!


  1. Tim Tegan on January 14, 2017 at 12:24 pm

    I think a dedicated boss or pmd project manager is always a better idea. I’ve seen bosses who implement team lead structures get let go and re-orged along with their higher up bosses too. I’ve also seen team leaders with team members both having 30 tech projects on there own to juggle a month with multiple working pieces and a team leader a using a new tracking ticket system ending up bottle necking things up by telling team member b through micro management and tickets instead of phone calls the logo should be 3 pixels up and to left. Then another ticket 4 pixels down and two to the right. When they were not in direct contact with the clients needs and how they stipulated extra padding. And ignoring team member b who says the client wanted it this way. The end result would be a three tier approval jugger naught with the boss having final approval in the ticketing system on version control. Then team leader a in his weekly one on one would throw team member b under the bus saying we had a problem with team member b. I’ve since got my pmd and worked with excellent senior management that believed in running leadership the correct way. And leading by example. A leader must be out front not just dictating but working and leading the way by example. In this instance I later found out that another division that did the same thing had a dedicated sourcing person doing project management in a since for everyone else. Something the team lead structure did not have. I also insisted to upper management that we had documentation on database connectivity setups. Not just winging it and having one senior team lead have to pass it on to other team members and then throw them under the bus because they did not have the time to properly relay how to connect new setups. Needless to say I left this shop and they lost the immediate boss and the higher up boss and then a third 3 years later who moved on. Other companies in town running the same tech setups are now losing all their staff for this type of position and contracting instead of full-time highers or outsourcing to india which has its own miscommunication problems. I’ve also seen the team lead thing happen were the team lead becomes a lead and decides to take two-hour lunch breaks came in late leave an hour early and leave for a few hours a day to chat with colleagues while the new team member does all the work, gets swamped and stays late. Mean while new team member is not sure if the boss is aware of this or what is going on. If your going to implement a team leader model you have to proceed with extreme caution. Communicating having accountability for the team leaders stepping up is way more important than anything else. Also making sure the non team leaders have more communication with management than team leaders if need be. And that your not creating mini micro managers. That is not what a team leader is for. A team leader should work harder than everyone else and lead by example if they are worthy of lead. And make regular team members life easier. Management and project managers are trained to deal with the 3 cogs on the wheel time, resources, budget. If one wheel moves they all need to move. I never think teams leads are a good idea each employee should be equal with equal voice reporting to a boss who can be impartial and listen. If more guidance is needed get a project manager or dedicated staff member who can help source for the team. Unfortunately there are not a lot of play books for companies to figure these things out and the same companies go through these structure changes and learn there own ways.

  2. jim bob on December 5, 2014 at 10:09 pm

    There’s no table to bring anything to.

  3. […] How to Lead Change When You’re NOT The Senior Leader — Carey Nieuwhof […]

  4. Notable Voices: October 30, 2014 - on October 30, 2014 at 5:00 am

    […] How to Lead Change When You’re NOT The Senior Leader — Carey Nieuwhof […]

  5. Beny Matos on October 25, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    Great, This is really going to help me. I’m not an adult yet but I always want to improve my Leadership and myself.


    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 25, 2014 at 12:41 pm

      Beny…love that you’re a teen learning leadership. That’s amazing! One of my favourite things is to get around young and aspiring leaders.

  6. Cherie Silas on October 25, 2014 at 9:56 am

    Excellent Advice. I’ve been both the Senior Leader and the one serving the Senior Leader and you have nailed it! This doesn’t just apply to church — This is how you live at the office if you want to be successful! The first step to becoming a leader is to know how to follow.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 25, 2014 at 12:36 pm

      Thanks Cherie. Glad to hear that. While I write from a church perspective, it’s great to see that the application is wider and broader. From my time in law, I would agree.

  7. Tandy Adams on October 25, 2014 at 2:50 am

    I would add be faithful in the “little” things (which is Biblical). When you show you are willing to step up and take care of things no one else wants or that are for the greater good or just the grunt work, then you show you are a team player and also earn some leverage. It’s about being in it for the Body as a whole and not necessarily just for you. Then when you have an idea, people are much more receptive.

  8. Jon Stallings on October 24, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    Great list Carey, we need more people who aren’t senior leaders to learn this skill. I have also found helpful that if I disagree with a leader to present my case by asking questions. That helps me have a better understanding and gives me a chance to voice my opinion without being too pushy.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 24, 2014 at 5:34 pm

      Jon…so wise. So wise. Thank you!

    • David Snead on November 10, 2014 at 7:15 am

      This also allows you to explore his opinion and reasoning behind the difference he has with you in opinion. You might, after all your questions, end up changing your mind! 😀 #alwaysbeteachable

  9. […] By Carey […]

  10. David on October 24, 2014 at 11:07 am

    There’s a lot here to like, thank you. Even “Senior Leaders” can find there are issues to overcome, too; I pastor three churches and team leader for a staff of five ordained persons, a full-time youth worker and a part-time young families worker serving twelve churches. The churches in which I serve have a (denomination) constitution which is apparently democratic, but, in effect often means the leaders must gain support from church meetings (which are in effect a “Corporate Senior Leader”) negotiating all five of the above to accomplish almost anything; this often dissipates time and energy. Addressing this would be a bon to many people known…

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 24, 2014 at 12:13 pm

      Very true David. We have a similar background. I started with three small churches too and for sure had to win over boards. Future post for sure!

  11. @davesimiele on October 24, 2014 at 7:45 am

    Internalize and own the senior leaders vision before you attempt to share it. This could take some time, but the people you lead will easily discern whether you’re truly behind the vision or not.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 24, 2014 at 12:13 pm

      Great point Dave. Thanks!

    • David Snead on November 10, 2014 at 7:13 am

      What if you’re having a hard time nailing down what this is exactly? (Don’t give me a “just ask him” answer – I have.)

      • Carey Nieuwhof on November 10, 2014 at 9:31 am

        That’s a great question. To me, finding vision is about taking timeless principles of scripture and applying them as best you can to your context. I don’t think there’s a short cut or universal answer. But I also learn from other churches/organizations to see what’s effective and apply accordingly.

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