The Best Way to the Top is to Look to the Bottom (But not the boss’)

When working your way to the top of an organization it is better to be pushed up than pulled up

At the start of any career, getting to the top looks like a long and arduous journey. The climb to the pinnacle of any corporate pyramid is considered so tricky and fraught with so many seemingly impenetrable obstacles that thousands of books and articles have been written purporting to the offer the secret route to the apex of corporate power.

For the most part, these lessons in corporate ladder-climbing suggest that the climber look to those above them for a helping hand. The idea is to try to kissing-assimpress, curry favor, ingratiate and kowtow to those above you; all in the misguided hope that they will pull you up the ladder to power. This strategy for getting to the top is succinctly categorized as the practice of “ass-kissing.”

And ass-kissing must work, since so many people have done it for so long. In fact, from a very young age we are conditioned and trained to use this technique to get ahead. Children learn early on that acting sweet and nice in front of adults, no matter how they may act with peers and siblings, will invariably get them treats. Most are so indoctrinated in the dissemination of false flattery and insinuating themselves into the good graces of those in authority, that by the time they graduate from college they are ready to turn pro. This preparation is deemed essential, because it is a generally accepted dictum in the business world that admission into the elite corporate inner sanctum comes only to those who have proven their proficiency at kissing the asses of those above.

At the same time, we are encouraged to facilitate this ass-kissing task by using those below us in the pecking order as stepping-stones so as to be properly positioned to pucker our lips. (All the while expecting those below us to perform the same function. Much like a chain ass-kiss.)

Down the Up Staircase

The truth is that this concept is ass-backward. In reality, the surest, fastest, safest and most secure way to the top is to pay more attention to the needs, plans, desires and motivations of those below you. By adopting this contrarian approach to career-climbing, the respect you show for those who work for you (after all, they know you don’t have to do that) will motivate them to join together, work hard and push you up. In practical terms, it is much better to have a broad basis of support pushing you up than it is to depend on the idiosyncrasies of a few above you to pull you up.


But don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in offering deference and respect to those with greater experience and higher in the pecking order – if they deserve it! And even if they don’t, it is appropriate to show respect for the position, if not for the individual. Our bosses deserve loyalty, respect, and support – until they do something to prove otherwise. But those qualities are best delivered honestly – face to face – not by false flattery and bending over to find an ass to kiss.

I know that it seems like pure Pollyanna to suggest that this anti-ass-kissing strategy will work in the real world, but that is because so few have the courage to employ it; not that it won’t work. There are so many real world examples of the weakness of power when it is focused at the top and the broad base of real power that comes from below, it amazes me that more in the corporate world don’t recognize this reality and use it for their benefit.

Remember back to the days of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain. Poland had been sucked into the orbit of the Soviet Union. The power in Poland was consolidated at the top and supported by the military strength of the USSR. If ever there was an ass-kissing society, this was one. The only way one could survive, let alone move up, was with some very serious ass-kissing. Then there was this guy Lech Walesa. He was a lowly electrician in the Lenin Shipyard (now the Putin Shipyard) in Poland. He was about as far down as possible on the political power-grid, but he was anything but an ass-kisser of those above him. He certainly was not helped from above, but he ended up leading the overthrow of the Russian ass-kissing government and ultimately became president of a free Poland. So what happened? Walesa looked down, not up. Appealing to the needs and desires of the masses of powerless people he was able to congeal the efforts of the many to create a power force that ejected those at the top and pushed Walesa up.

Think of it another way: The most powerful natural force on earth is the volcano. How is this power demonstrated? Rocks and debris are hurled thousands of feet in the air and miles away from the volcano, but they are not sucked out of the volcano, they are ejected by a massive force that pushes up from the bottom.

Sure, these examples are a bit grandiose and unlike anything any of us will encounter in our own day-to-day corporate battles, but the fundamental concept demonstrating that real power always works its way from the bottom up and not the top down is relevant – even in the more mundane task of corporate ladder-climbing. It is the recognition of where real power comes from that is important in these examples, because it helps us to understand that the best way to move up is to be pushed up not pulled up. When we recognize that fundamental fact, it not only allows us to see the ultimate futility of ass-kissing for what it is, but more importantly it offers a better strategy for moving up.

My experience in business taught me that the pathway to real and lasting success came from helping others be successful – not the dead-end of ass-kissing. Although I do plead guilty to sometimes playing the fun game of faux ass-kissing, simply to mock those who lived by and fed off it (oh, the stories I could tell about that.) Anyway, the reality is that if we will look down the ladder, instead of up it, and help the people below to be successful, then they will push us up.

I learned early on the rule of “power of numbers” in trying to accomplish my goals. There was a limited amount I could do alone – and even less if I spent time ass-kissing. However, if I could support and motivate those below me, then a lot more could be accomplished and my fortunes would rise with the tide. When you are sincere and honest in your efforts to protect and help those below you to achieve their own personal success, they become a base of support that gives you immense power.

And the Moral of the Story …

Don’t be beguiled by the value of kissing up to your superiors, regardless of how far you ascend the corporate ladder. Deferential? Yes. Toadying? No. Ass-kissing? Never. Break the culture of corporate ass-kissers by stepping out; concentrate on being the best at what you do, accept responsibility and most of all, build a solid foundation of support by looking down the ladder, not up.

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2 responses to “The Best Way to the Top is to Look to the Bottom (But not the boss’)

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