“Don’t curse the darkness, light a candle.” — Chinese Proverb

In our leadership workshops most team leaders, supervisors, and middle managers agree whole-heartedly that far too many people in their organization succumb to the Victimitis Virus — the poor-little-me syndrome. This tendency is often revealed by statements like “they are doing it to me again,” “there’s nothing I can do,” or “it’s all their fault.” Looking right past themselves, these managers then look for ways to change everyone else.

Too often managers don’t recognize the extent of their own Victimitis. They aspire to lead but end up demoralizing their own teams and frustrate themselves by choosing to be disempowered by their boss or others above them in the organization. They give away their power by believing that they don’t have any. They unwittingly become proponents of “heroic management” — the belief that leadership only comes down from the top.

That’s a real shame, because these potential “middle leaders” could have a real impact on their own teams or on their part of the organization. Instead they become models of helplessness and cynicism. They often complain bitterly as they wait for their boss and others higher in the organization to take action. It’s all too easy to point a finger upward and shake our heads in disgust. It is much harder to point a finger in the mirror and see a potential source of our leadership problems.

Regardless of where they might be in the organizational hierarchy, strong leaders don’t make the mistake of behaving as though they work for someone else. You won’t find them saying, “They ought to do something about that.” Instead, they’ll say, “I will do something about that.”

Since the 1980s, actor and director Robert Redford has led a quiet revolution to change the entire movie industry by opening it up to artistic diversity. His Utah-based Sundance Institute has become one of the most influential forces in Hollywood — incubating independent films that break new cinematic ground. As a profile of Redford in the Harvard Business Review noted, “His multi-faceted approach to change includes developing grassroots initiatives; earning credibility and then leveraging his successes; practicing the art of compromise and persuasion in order to get projects accomplished; gathering support along the way; and, most important, demonstrating persistence.”

Movie stars aren’t usually perceptive sources of leadership insight! But Redford’s reflections on decades of patient and successful leadership from the inside-out provide a very useful lesson on how to lead an evolution as an “outside-insider”:

A better way to change a system is to work through it as a bottom-up insider, quietly chipping away at standard operating procedures, creating small opportunities to do what you really want to do, until you achieve a real success. Then you can break out your agenda in a larger way.

I learned that the corporate powers that be aren’t going to be interested in the fruits of your labor and passion unless you are adept at understanding their agenda and speaking their language….You can’t be forceful, loud, confrontational, or declarative. You have to sell what you have on their terms.

Once you have earned credibility and are in a position to get what you want, you need to strike a series of devil’s bargains. To horse trade with the devil, you have to look him squarely in the eye and make the right demands from him.

I concluded that if you want to crack the system, you can’t hit it directly; you have to work behind the scenes.