Starting from Rock Bottom


Hello again!  I hope you’ve been practicing your Love Zone and Spider Sense skills, for three reasons: first, because it’s wonderful to learn that you can do real magic; second, because “leading up” requires such magic, and third, because if you’re in any relatively sane systems, using your magic will create rapid, exciting changes in your life.  When this happens, please write to me about it ( so that I can ooh, aah, and write you up in future “Team Profiles.”

Assuming that you’re getting in touch with your magic, let’s talk about exactly how you can begin leading from the rock-bottom of a sane system.  Remember, we defined a sane system this way:  “Situation X, and its leaders aren’t perfect, but on the whole they’re just, fair, responsive, and well-intentioned.”

Caveat Dux (Leader Beware)

Ironically, a healthy, sane system, with kind and intelligent people above you in the power structure, is the place where you’re at the greatest risk of failing to develop your essential Team leadership skills.  Your most probable “failure mode” is falling into the role of the faithful, childlike follower, waiting for your superior to give you assignments, fulfilling those assignments, and getting rewarded with money, privileges, approval, or whatever.  

dux following their dux (leader)

Ducks following their dux.


If the powerful people in Situation X are just and kind, you may go on and on playing Follow the Leader, expecting others to come up with all the right instructions for your life.  And nobody has those instructions except you.  No parent, mentor, or guru, no matter how inspired or motivational, knows what your superpowers are, or how you’re supposed to save the world.  Because you have a natural urge to fulfill your destiny, this means that your leader will eventually disappoint you.

I can’t count the number of clients who’ve told me, “I expect you to give me a clear map of my future and make it easy for me to follow the map.”  I’ve also had dozens of people say, “I want to do what you do, so clearly, I’m meant to work with you.”

There are all kinds of problems with this logic.  Aside from the fact that I have no idea what your destiny holds, I have high anxiety, generalized bewilderment, and the attention span of a gnat.  if you really want to “do what I do,” that doesn’t mean tucking in behind me or anyone else; it means making up your life as you go along, relying completely on your intuition and internal compasses, always terrified of the unknown but constantly sailing into it, having no other captain to chart the course or steer the ship. 

So remember this:  Your destiny is not to be with the “powerful” people you admire.  Your destiny is to be like them.  


Leading Up, Step One:  Think Like the President While You’re Still the Janitor

Back to your “Situation X.”  If your spider-senses tell you can trust the individuals above you in the power structure, it takes only a change in your mindset to put you in the leadership role where you belong.

The trick is to see your whole organization (job, family, etc.) as if you were its topmost leader.  Imagine you wake up tomorrow, and find you’ve been magically transformed into the CEO of the company that employs you, or the president of the college where you’re a student, or the matriarch/patriarch of your whole extended family.  Look at this organization—including your present role—from this Big-Person-In-Charge perspective.  You’ll realize some chilling but liberating facts:

  1. Being a Big-Person-In-Charge isn’t less scary than being low on the totem pole—it’s scarier.  In fact, IT’S TERRIFYING.  Leaders are just ordinary people with no one to whom they can pass the buck, and no rule book to help them take the next step.  As Shakespeare put it, “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”  The sooner you understand that, the more you’ll be able to serve—i.e., lead.           
  2. Though facing the stark panic of figuring out what to do next, leaders have the freedom to imagine new ways of doing things.  This is fabulous news to a Team member, because Teammates are highly creative.  As soon as you imagine yourself in the leader’s role, you’ll realize that leading any group of people is as creative as choreographing a dance or writing a novel.  It absolutely requires “thinking outside the box.”                                                             
  1. Leadership is also a problem-solving process, like doing a crossword puzzle or getting a rocket to launch.  Most non-leaders sit around waiting for leaders to solve the puzzles.  If you love science as well as art (and most Teammates fit this description), you’ll find that it’s much more fun to seek solutions than to wait for them.  Hard work?  You bet your ass.  But much more fun than following.



Step Two: Recall the Two-Part Question of all Team Members

The way to deal with the fear, the creative demands, and the problem-solving imperatives of a leader is to return to the question I suggested in my first post:

“Who are my people, and how can I serve them?”

Ask this question of yourself as you play the role of Big-Person-In-Charge for Situation X.  How could your company provide better products or services to more people, for less money, while bringing in enough profits to pay your employees well?  As president of your university, how could you improve the research and teaching at the school, and how could you best serve the students?  As matriarch or patriarch, how would you keep the family harmonious and mutually supportive? 

Holding yourself in the Love Zone while empathizing with the very top leaders of Situation X engages your brain and energy in a way that’s totally different from the passive, inevitable resentment of a chronic follower.  You’ll start to have ideas.  Some of them will be unworkable.  Some of them will be interesting.  Some of them will be genius. 

Right now, imagine that you’re the leader of Situation X, and write down three great ideas for leading the whole social structure into better performance.  They don’t necessarily have to be great ideas, but you have to come up with something.  As a leader, you have no other option.  If this thought leaves you with permafrost of the brain, try a little-known but incredibly effective idea-generator: get silly.


Step Three:  If You Get Stuck, Lead for Laughs

If you need proof that you, yes you, are a genius leader, try some of the exercises in comic Katie Goodman’s new book Improvisation for the Spirit: Live a More Creative, Spontaneous, and Courageous Life Using the Tools of Improv Comedy.  (Better yet,come to the Improvisational Comedy workshop Katie and I are holding in January.  See “events” on this site for details.)  I’ve used the exercises in Katie’s books with friends, clients, my wonderful Master Coaches, and my kids.  I’ve found that they help people become instant leaders.

The wondrous thing about improv is that it throws you into a situation that’s exactly like the role of a leader in the real world: You have no option but to forget your nerves, get creative, and solve whatever problem is at hand—and by God, within seconds, your brain starts generating wonderful ideas, ideas that astonish everyone, especially you. 

Doing this for laughs is phenomenally powerful training, because it helps you think of things that are totally “out of the box,” and—even more important—puts you in the Love Zone.  (In fact, remembering group laughter is one of the quickest ways to return to the Zone whenever you need extra magic.  Want to go to the Zone right now?  Watch this: <link broken>

So: What is the silliest thing your group or organization could do to serve your people?

Excellent.  Now think of five more silly solutions.  Write everything down.


Step Four:  Try Random Association

Once you’re limbered up with silly stuff, try this to generate even more leadership ideas:  Pick nouns at random from the dictionary, or spot objects around you in your environment, and think of a way your group or organization could serve people better using whatever crops up. 

Let’s try this right now.  Imagine that you’re the Big-Person-In-Charge of Situation X.  Think of a problem you need to solve to serve your people better (for example, making cheaper and more decorative bongs, bringing better students to your university, throwing a family party where no one gets physically or emotionally injured).  Now, still in the role of top leader, solve the problem you’ve targeted, using the following objects:

  1. Beagles (of course).
  2. Candles.
  3. Cell phones.
  4. Water.
  5. Television.
  6. Popcorn balls.
  7. Rocks.
  8. Earrings.
  9. DVD technology.
  10. Pictures of children.

Think of a solution using each and every one of these items, even if it sounds stupid.  What you’re doing is revving up your right brain hemisphere so it can deliver new ideas to your critical, calculating, verbal left hemisphere.  Both are needed in leadership, and since your left-brain has been educated up the yinyang by our current society, the right-brain exercises above will begin to balance the equation. 

Beagles:  The Universal Solution

Once you start generating leadership ideas, the final step is easy—in a sane system.  We’ll cover dysfunctional and evil situations in upcoming posts.  But in a power structure where all your higher-ups are basically stable, open, and honest, you just have to start making a little noise.


Step Five:  Talk It Up

In sane-and-sensible Situation X, everyone—especially the top leaders—is eager to hear any good ideas about how to serve more effectively.  So, as your newly energized brain starts cooking up ideas your top boss can use, your leadership task—even if you’re the janitor—is to communicate those ideas.  To everyone.

It took a ridiculously long time for me to realize I could “lead up” at O, the Oprah Magazine, where I’m a columnist.  Each month, I waited like a nice, passive follower for my editor and her team to come up with topics for my monthly article.  Then one day I thought of the craziest thing—maybe I should send my editor a few topic ideas of my own. 


My editor immediately responded with an email labeled “Wowza!”  She wasn’t only open to my ideas, she was thrilled.  I’d never thought how much I could help her (not to mention her boss, her boss’s boss, and our ultimate boss, the readers) by leading my work as a columnist instead of expecting to be led.  This would be immediately apparent to my dog, who has the intellectual prowess of kelp.  But me, with my Harvard degrees?  It took years.

Here’s another example: My friend Billy, a producer at a 24-hour news network, started out by “picking up garbage in the control room” as an intern.  But he also had great story ideas, as well as thoughts about how to book good media commentators.  He was cheerfully open about these ideas, got hired almost immediately, and rose like a rocket in the organization. 

Another dear friend, Betsy, stepped in as a leader when her mother was diagnosed with an extremely grim case of cancer.  Betsy learned more than most doctors know about her mother’s illness and its treatment.  As her mom later told, me, Betsy wasn’t one bit shy about sharing her ideas, research, questions, and suggestions about the optimal course of treatment.  By “leading up,” Betsy helped win 17 more healthy years with her wonderful mother.  (Studies show that patients who take a leadership role relative to their doctors have far better survival odds than those who stay in a passive follower role.)

This is an opportunity to “lead up.”


What If Things Don’t Work Out So Well?

It may be that you’ll try the methods above—imagining yourself in the top leadership role of Situation X, getting creative, and voicing your ideas to others—and get an icky surprise.  Instead of realizing that you’re helping everyone in the organization by leading from below, those “above” you may feel threatened, or steal your ideas, or tell you that there’s no precedent for what you’re suggesting, so the company’s going to go right on manufacturing wooden cart wheels until this “car fad” dissipates.  This means Situation X isn’t as sane as you thought.  It’s either dysfunctional or (much more rarely) evil.

Oops.  Wrong system.

Oh, well, now you know.

The great thing about leading from below is that there’s always more where that came from.  As a Team member, you don’t have the option of lapsing into a follower role and losing your destiny.  The universe (yes, I know, I know, but it’s true) will not allow it.  You’ll just have to change tactics.  To what?  You can find out in my upcoming blog posts.

If your “System X” is sane, however—be it a family, a company, a school, a political party, or a baboon troupe—think like the leader of the whole shebang, and do it out loud.  Before you know it, people will not only listen to you, but want to give you formal titles and accolades.  Soon, you’ll have to read about “leading down,” and by a fabulous coincidence, I’ll probably be writing about that very thing.

  1. Amy
    Amy says:

    I just wanted you to know how much I’m enjoying reading your posts about the Team and what we can do to fulfill our purpose. Your books have been so helpful on my journey. I’m eager to read more posts about the Team, so keep them comin’!!

  2. Robin
    Robin says:

    Martha, I was searching for answers yesterday and I was was lead to pick up Steering by Starlight (I read it several months ago and keep it near). I opened it and randomly picked a passage and it spoke to me. This morning, still searching for “answers”, “signs” “direction”, I was lead to your website. I’ve visited many times in the past, but today I felt strongly I would find something that I needed. Well, that is truly an understatement. As I sit here, tears streaming down my face, I know that I have been touched by magic.

    I am struggling with our local school district in regards to the education of my six year old daughter with Down syndrome. She is a gift from God and has so much potential. She has a mission on this earth and I must be her advocate. The school district would like to do the easy thing and put her in a Life Skills class. I am preparing to go to battle with these people at the first of the year. The idea of this is overwhelming, but the universe has been preparing me for this for some time now. After reading your blog this morning I am completely convinced that I also have a mission on this earth. And, it begins with opening the minds and hearts of our local educators to the abilities and potential of students with Down syndrome.

    Thank you, Martha!

  3. Tracee Sioux
    Tracee Sioux says:

    Yes that is how I know. I keep doing all that and expecting a sane result – the one you wrote about. Now I now. It’s definately #2 or these strategies would have worked. Can’t wait to find out how to lead the innocently dysfunctional.

  4. Kimberly Kyle
    Kimberly Kyle says:

    Love this blog! It is magical, random, (in a chaos theory kind of way) and authentically powerful. You are truly the best kind of nutcase. I still laugh when I think about the still behind the barn. I’m so excited! I can’t wait to get to the TRULY CRAZY OR EVIL POWER STRUCTURES. Sometimes, what makes us whole comes from incredibly broken places. There is magic in them there structures…wouldn’t wish it on anyone, wouldn’t trade it for anything.

    Here is to a sixth sense, wanderlust, and the secrets that are revealed when we allow the illusion of fear to be unmasked as a fraud. I believe in this very bold truth: destiny will be forced to play the fickle bitch card if you don’t honor your calling. Life is far more interesting when we stop controlling everything and start listening compassionately with our heart voice and following our mission as Team Members. You couldn’t make this power up if you tried. Good stuff.

    Happy Solstice to all.


  5. Maggie
    Maggie says:

    Reading this great blog entry, I realized that, having made my living working in different positions within a rather large, Rome-based religion, I have never been in a sane organization, and I’m not likely to be. It’s hard to even imagine working in a place that’s #1, and not at least 2 or 3. So please don’t wait too long to get to those. Thanks for all this, Martha! P.S. My 8th grade son and I did a version of your holding your arm up under pressure exercise and either lying and telling the truth, and I learned some interesting things about his love life!

  6. Amy D
    Amy D says:

    Is it just me, or do the rest of you feel the change in the air? I’m not talking about just a tiny course adjustment, though – it’s a sea-change and it’s headed this way. I am SO ready to ride the wave where-ever it takes us. Every experience, every success and failure, every new idea has prepared me for what is coming. My life has been exciting so far, but it’s nothing compared to what is ahead.

    This is the perfect time for the lessons Martha is teaching. We will welcome all challenges with love and new skills, and we will change the direction of the future. Leading through a time of chaos will help heal the world and everything in it. And we are just the people to do that!


  7. Maryann Lowry
    Maryann Lowry says:

    Again, reading your blogs are akin to receiving “manna from Heaven”, as I’ve been in “Exodus mode” this year. It’s scary, but gratifying to be the leader of my own life. School systems appear to be sane from the outside, even the non-profits, because they “act in the interests of our most innocent society members, our children”. Yet, once again, I cut ties with a system that seemed “sane”. However, the leader of the school has a top down style though she sees herself as a lateral collaborative leader. This holds true until one’s idea or suggestions cross her perceptions of how things should be. My intuition told me that the system wasn’t sane. Yet, I wanted to believe that this was a sane loving magical place to work, because great things are happening for children.

    Yet, I can also see that spending a few minutes collaborating with the identified leader (aka administrator, director) can usually allow a quick read of the system’s leadership style sane, innocently dysfunctional or evil. I had a “Duh” moment while reading your post. The signs were all there. I just didn’t want to see them. It serves the leader to accept the accolades generously received by the public about the school. Parents, who complain or choose to find another school, are immediately judged as weak, unappreciative, dysfunctional, etc.

    Thanks for a brilliantly written manual for leading from the bottom up. Your words definitely connected with my soul and provided an opportunity to process what I truly didn’t want to see.

  8. Kris P
    Kris P says:

    Love this! Timing, as always is impeccable… as someone in a leadership role, this very issue is something I’m confronting right now.. I have many folks on my team who are very happy, content, and have strong feelings of safety… I’m observing their complacency and willingness to follow… it is the very thing I’ve chosen to pay attention to in the next year… to help them connect to their creative spirit and innovation… not just wait for the ideas to come… I’me very much looking forward to your next few posts for more insight.

  9. Tara V.
    Tara V. says:

    Hi All, I just had an “aha” moment with the leadership/follower dynamic. In the vacuum of leadership, I step up to the plate and lead. So lack of leadership pushes me to grow. Now if I could just let go of my resentment of those “teachers”…

  10. Kris
    Kris says:

    I so needed to read this on this very day. I’m the very lowest person on my organization’s totem pole but there is much to do and I constantly wonder if I’m overstepping my bounds. “I don’t get paid enough to lead!” shouts my fraidy-cat voice. It’s true- I don’t, but that is mainly my excuse for letting my fear of failure, or being put back in my place, get in the way of creative solutions to the organization’s challenges.
    Thank you, Martha, for speaking the words I need to hear on the very day I need to hear them. This happens so often it’s spooky.

  11. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    To all of you who wish Martha would tell you what to do so you can map out your life just ask your dreams for guidance. Here’s what I got in a dream after reading Finding Your North Star: Dreamed that Martha Beck’s voice said, “I like to pair people whose North Star tips are brushed with the same shade of gold.” I asked her who she would pair me with and she said, “Erich Segal.” On waking I realized Erich Segal wrote Love Story. Took that as clear confirmation that I should finish and submit my novel–a spiritual love story. Thanks, Martha, for showing up in my dream!

  12. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I don’t believe in evil. Incompetent, ill, tired, overwhelmed, sick, lost yes….but never evil.