No matter how high you get, always look up to those below you.
An often-heard criticism of many that make it to the top is that they soon forget where they came from and those who helped them achieve success become an afterthought. It is the type of searing censure that can destroy the success that one worked so hard to achieve, because it creates an attitude of disrespect and even loathing from those who were left behind and forgotten. With a nod to the 1989 Oak Ridge Boys song “No Matter How High,” the surefire way to attain and maintain success is to internalize the philosophy that no matter how high you get, you always look up to those below.
Adopting this philosophy as your mantra is not only an indication of integrity, it has a highly pragmatic value as well. There will come a time – no matter how high you might rise in your career – when the support and effort of those below will be needed. Those who have used their talent to help you achieve success, only to be forgotten and ignored, have long memories.
Admittedly, it is not easy to adopt the idea of looking up to those below you, because it is an accepted – indeed encouraged – belief in the business world that one climbs to the top by catering to the interests and egos of those above their station on the corporate ladder. The generally recognized colloquialism for this tactic is “ass kissing.” The idea is that the more anally focused one is on employing this technique, the more likely they are to move up the power ladder. Yet even if one is successful utilizing this strategy, it invariably turns out to be a hollow victory, because this tactic garners only disrespect from those below and often from those above as well.
It is certainly proper to offer deference and respect to those with greater experience and higher rank in the pecking order of an organization – so long as they deserve it. And even if they don’t, it is right to show respect for their position. Those higher up deserve our loyalty, respect and support – until they do something to prove otherwise. But those qualities or attributes are best delivered honestly and openly, not by the phony flattering of “ass kissing.”
Based on the current way of thinking in business, it may seem counterintuitive, but the quickest and most effective way to get to the top and stay there is to look down to move up. And what does that mean? Simple: It means helping those below to be more secure and successful in their jobs.
That’s the exact opposite of what happens in many businesses. Those in the higher levels of the typical corporation are generally concerned about only one thing – their success, not yours. They spend more time “protecting their turf” and “feathering their own nest;” leaving little time or inclination to care about others. If, on the other hand, you can be different and demonstrate that you sincerely care more about the welfare of those below you, than you do for your own success, they will join together to provide a large base of support to push you up. In others words, it will be in their own best interest for you to achieve success because the higher you go the better is is for those below you.
A Lesson from History
One of the great leaders in American history understood this point completely. As Bruce Chadwick wrote in George Washington’s War “He [Washington] completely understood that the function of a leader was not to make the men under his command care about what happened to him, but what happened to them. His political genius was to understand that the successful leader gains power and status not by assuming their own success, but the success of those who depended on him.”
I was fortunate to discover early in my career that there was a better chance for success when I was willing to look up to those below me. I learned that for my own benefit, my real job – really my only job – was to create an opportunity and environment where others would be free and motivated to do the best job possible. To this end, I made a compact with those who worked for me. My commitment was that if they would work their ass off for me, I would do the same for them. My belief was that that the best way to advance was to use what power I had to make it possible for those who worked for me to concentrate on doing their job.
The agreement with those below me was that they did not have to worry about protecting their ass – that was my job. They didn’t have to worry about the next promotion – I’ll take care of that for them. They didn’t have to plot and feel anxiety about the next raise – I would get them what they deserved. My pledge was that they would not have to fret about working hard, only to have someone else take the credit – they’ll get all they were entitled to. Maybe most important, my assurance to them was that if something goes wrong – I would be willing to stand with them and accept the blame.
My intuitive belief was that those below me could and would do more to help me move up than those above me ever would. Once you understand and accept this philosophy, then you understand that it is in your own best interests to always look up to those below you. If the people who work for you trust you and believe that you genuinely care about their best interests, then not only are they freed up to do the job that needs to be done, but they will reciprocate your efforts for them by pushing you up the ladder ahead of them.
The ultimate validation of the value of looking down to move up came to fruition when I joined with four others to found LifeUSA. I may have been at the top of the organization, but the structure, culture and environment at LifeUSA was to build success from the bottom up, not the top down. All those who worked at LifeUSA were “owners” not employees. Each individual owned the same class of stock as the founders and no one could benefit from the success of the company, unless all benefited. This structure motivated individuals at all levels to make the effort to see the company grow. The leaders of LifeUSA always looked up to those below because we knew that our personal success and that of the company was predicated on their efforts – even more than ours. (This philosophy was even taken to the point that when we built our first corporate headquarters, the founders and top executives were housed on the ground floor and all others were above us.) The end result was that all benefited from the success of the company. By always looking up to those below, the founders of the company achieved more success and reward that we could have imagined (or accomplished on our own) and the others in the company were pleased too, because they shared in the success.
And the Moral of the Story …
Don’t be beguiled by the accepted attitude in the business world that the best way to move up is to kiss-up to those above you. It is what they want you to believe, because it is what keeps them above you. Even if this approach allows you to move up, it is a shallow and insecure victory. The reality is that the real support for your success comes from those below you, not above you. When you understand and accept that, you will find that the best path to the top is to look down, not up.
Visualize the Statue of Liberty. What comes to mind? Is it the crowned head and lighted torch at the top? What few think about or even notice is that the base of the Statue of Liberty is larger than “Lady Liberty” itself. It is the solid base of support below the statue that has allowed it to endure as a beacon of liberty. Every time you see a statue that pays homage to a heroic figure, you should note that it is a larger base of strength from below that supports the hero on top. Without that, the heroic figure would soon topple.
It is the same in the search for heroic success in business. Most focus only on the crown at the top and give little notice or regard to those below who are needed to provide the base and support for success. One who seeks to make it to the top and stay there should never lose sight of one fact: Strength and sustainability comes from the base, not the top. That is the reason why no matter how high you get you should always look up to those below you.