How to Move Up

Crouching Boy with Inquisitive Look

When was the last time you thought about, or had a discussion with a spouse, co-worker, or friend about how to move up.  Sometimes the conversation is about someone who moved up too quickly, or someone who didn’t move up fast enough.  Sometimes it’s just a colleague or friend wanting to vent about why they haven’t been promoted.  My hunch is that you’ve thought about it in the last few months, if not the last few weeks or even days.  If you think you are a great leader, that has been looked over for promotions, or you find yourself discontent in your current role, this blog post is a good place to start.  It’s probably not going to be what you expect, but hear me out.  It has worked for me, and I’m confident it will work for you.

Leadership Truth

“Moving up” is not the goal of Leadership.  “Helping up” is.

After my last blog post, Leadership is not Management, one of my connections on LinkedIn IM’d me and said: “The difficulty is that leadership doesn’t merit higher compensation like management. Although I strive to be a leader in all that I do, it doesn’t seem to progress my role. But if I move into management, then I can lead more, correct?  Formal titles reap more benefit or material gain.”  His comment has three specific concerns or assertions that I’ve heard or thought myself many times over the past several years.  I think all three are important to understand for leaders who want to know more about how to move up.

  1. Managers are compensated higher than leaders who are Individual Contributors (non-managers).
  2. Being a leader doesn’t guarantee a higher organizational title.
  3. A title enables someone to lead more.

Managers are compensated higher than leaders who are Individual Contributors (non-managers)

I think this depends on the organization, but in general the assertion is true.  People aspire to be in a management role for different reasons including: to be able to tell people what to do, for the pay, to make a difference, to be respected, to impress others, for prestige, among other things.  Regardless of motivation, the role of a manager is a different kind of “difficult” than whatever individual contributor role you might be in.  It’s one thing to influence others (i.e. leadership), and something completely different to be responsible for the livelihood of others and accountable for an organization’s success.  Below are some skills and duties Managers must have that are not really requirements or skills of a leader.

  • Managing budgets (Understanding them too) 
  • Hiring good talent
  • Evaluating performance
  • Performance corrections
  • Firing bad talent (“Firing” is a strong word..  How about “terminating”?   “Letting go”?)  I’m sure the last generation is still scoffing at our attempts to make “Firing” sound politically correct.
  • Managing salaries and compensation
  • Understanding and following regulatory and compliance guidelines
  • Knowing the scope of work everyone on the team is doing
  • Understanding the industry
  • Managing confidentiality and sensitive topics

Your leadership ability should have a positive correlation with your compensation regardless of whether you are a manager or an individual contributor.  But the level of organizational accountability, and the economic laws of supply and demand for the manager skills I’ve listed above, will almost always put compensation for a manager higher than someone who is a leader sitting in an individual contributor role.

Being a “Leader” doesn’t guarantee a higher organizational title

Perhaps you’ve been working hard to lead others, but just haven’t yet made it into a management role.  You might be frustrated, you may even be thinking of moving to a different organization.  One thing is certain; you are not alone.  Positions get more and more competitive the higher they are within an organization.  It is hard enough to get an entry level position, and it only gets more difficult from there.  Supply and demand, your reputation, organizational politics, culture, policy, and many more factors contribute to the complexity of moving up.  So here’s what I’ll say.  Stop trying to move up.  I mentioned in the leadership truth at the beginning of this post that “Moving up” is not the goal of leadership.  “Helping up” is.

Psalms 75:5-7 from the Bible teaches that God promotes people.  Verse 5 basically says that we should not be self-promoting.  Verse 6 teaches that promotion doesn’t come from the people around us.  And Verse 7 is pretty clear that God personally manages demotions & promotions.  I believe the Bible is completely true, and it’s freeing to know that regardless of whether or not you have a good manager/supervisor/boss, regardless of who else may be interested in the same next level position you are, and regardless of the organization’s politics, culture, and policy, God has it all under control.  You don’t have to compete with others for God’s best in your life.  If you are not in a leadership position yet, it’s because God hasn’t put you there yet.  It is that simple, and that should cause you to self-reflect about why that might be.

What about ambition?

That is not to say you can’t be ambitious, or that you can’t have a candid conversation with your boss about your career aspirations.  But a good leader’s ambition should not be demonstrated as simply a desire to “move up”.  It is demonstrated by focusing deeply on your current role, being exceptional at it, and finding ways to prepare yourself for what might be asked of you in the future.  You were hired and are paid to be in your current role, not to spend company resources and time on the clock to climb the corporate ladder.  It is the people who are exceptionally good at their craft that are noticed for promotion, not the people constantly asking for a promotion.  Don’t be frustrated and discontent.  Appreciate the job you are in now, and focus on doing it well.

A title enables someone to lead more

A title does amplify a leader’s influence, but more than that it amplifies that person’s leadership ability or lack thereof.  We’ve all seen someone move to the next level, who was not ready for it.  It’s not a pretty sight, and many times poor leadership will drive good talent away from an organization.  You have probably also seen when really good leaders get promoted, and exciting things happen.

I’m the Director of the Media team at Grand Rapids Baptist Church, and I often run the sound board for services.  It’s a Behringer X32, which is a pretty awesome digital, 32-channel sound-board.  When you setup a new input (a microphone, computer audio, guitar, etc…) you have to get the gain structure just right and ensure there is no static or interference coming from the source.  There is a lot you can do to tweak the sound within the mixer itself, but there is no covering up a bad signal or the wrong gain structure.  The same is true with Leadership.  Make sure your leadership style is tuned right, as much as possible before you move into a manager role, because no amount of title can fix bad leadership.

How to move up?  Help up others instead.

The best training you can give yourself for leadership, regardless of the role you are in, is to “help up” those around you.  Our senior Pastor, Cody Kuehl said this about leadership: “Great leaders use themselves to lift others up.  Poor leaders use others to lift themselves up.”  Focus your efforts on making others successful.  Be encouraging.  Speak well about your leadership, even when you disagree with them.  Be kind to those that are not always kind to you – even to those who never are.  Smile often.  Acknowledge and engage everyone you work with, regardless of their title, age, nationality, gender, political views, religion, etc…, and regardless of whether you are at work or at the supermarket.  Make eye contact, and be purposeful about lifting others above their circumstances.

You want to know how to move up?  Stop trying.  Start focusing your efforts on doing your current job well, and work on helping others be successful.  That’s how you will move up.  It won’t happen fast, and you wouldn’t be ready for it if it did.  You are in a great place, making a great living, and you are blessed to be exactly where you are at.  Contentment is based on perception, not circumstances.  Don’t let your lack of upward mobility put a dark shadow over the great position you already have.

Check out “Finding Leadership – An Introduction to the Series”  to see the purpose of the series along with a list of topics that will be covered.


  1. Josh,

    I truly is inspiring to read through this journey. You have written words that seem to align with many of my own journey recently. It truly had put some things in perspective for me. I Lead as a passion and have thought that the further “up” I go the more I will be able to contribute to the whole of the organization I am a part of. Keep up the great articles….

    1. Thanks Paul! I’ve enjoyed putting my experiences on paper. Leadership is unique journey where the destination keeps changing.

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