Don't Kick the Issue Upstairs!


A couple weeks ago in the RFL about Jesus, Clinton, and Wagoner, I made a mistake which I’d like to kick myself for repeatedly making. In that RFL I used language that runs totally against my most fundamental leadership belief: I wrote about “leaders,” when really what I meant was “people in positions of authority.” Those two are not the same.* One of my strongest held beliefs about leadership is that you can lead from anywhere, with or without formal authority, and the best organizations are those that cultivate everyday leadership – every day people, who lead every day. And here is a critical point for everyday leaders in these sometimes frightening and turbulent times:

Lead in the charge to end wasting energy on internal “stuff.” Instead, exercise leadership in directing energy out – to better serving clients, customers, vendors, taxpayers, children, or whoever your constituents are. When organizations are under tremendous pressure to improve quality, cut costs, and just stay alive, it is completely natural that such pressure will be turned inside. Under such universal pressure, budget competitions arise, smoldering personality issues erupt, and egos get massively in the way. The back office squabbles with the front; the field with headquarters, sales with production, or the upper school with the lower school. The usual tendency is to look to what we’d normally call “the leaders” to resolve the conflicts. Sometimes direction is truly needed “from above,” but often everyday leaders have the capacity to gain resolution to those internal issues. In so doing they strengthen collaboration and confidence internally. They also free up the authority figure to do the things only he or she can do outside – working with key customers, accessing capital, or building external partnerships. For example, in the state government or at GM, the last thing the chief executive needs to be doing is refereeing internal squabbles.

So, you might look around at your simmering sibling squabbles and see whether you can’t lead: Work with your peers (the “they” in the frequent “we-they” differences). The core principles are simple. First, recognize that most of the grueling choices – and the pressure they create – are no one’s fault. And fault-seeking is generally a major dead end. Instead, fix your attitude on the future. Then execute on the core leadership skills (popularized by Stephen Covey): Seek first to understand. With bosses, we know to understand them first; they naturally get that prerogative. But with peers, seeking first to understand is not presumed. Maybe that’s why it’s so powerful. Then comes the corollary principle: Seek win-win. After you’ve understood their needs, share yours, but then continually stand for a win for both parties. Lastly, seek clarity. Clarity is efficiency. And today, there’s so little room for inefficiency.

Tough times invite you as an everyday leader to step to the fore, and

Lead with your best self,


* I must credit my mentor and friend Ron Heifetz who introduced “the distinction between leadership and authority” as the first of the critical distinctions in his course at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. I never looked at leadership the same after that very first lecture in his course back in 1985.

Audio File:  Don’t Kick the Issue Upstairs!

  • One of my favorite book titles is: CAUSING OTHERS TO WANT YOUR LEADERSHIP. It seems to me that the title itself speaks to your current RFL message.

  • Hi Dan,

    Great food for thought today. Thank you. In the workplace, home, or other areas of our lives it’s easy to get sucked into an “us vs. them” mentality. You cite Covey, who in turn is a follower of the principles of Jesus, who advocated anything but an us-vs.-them mentality. All of those statements that speak of thinking about the future, understanding others, seeking clarity, and seeking win-win were all taught some 2,000 years ago, and still serve us today.

    Thanks again,
    Tony Ettwein

  • Hey Dan,
    I appreciated the distinction you made about individuals in positions of authority vs people who are in positions to lead. Also the need to take care of business wherever it surfaces—not always sending it “up” (or down or over).
    Thanks for the good thoughts—-always a good way to start the week.
    John Burkhardt

  • Hi Dan,

    Your comments are excellent. So often it is easy to forget that distinction, but so true it is. Thank you for this one. You have brought some important ideas back into my head. It is so good to see you keeping this column alive. Thank you and keep it up. Please give my best to the Governor. I haven’t seen her in quite a while and am so happy she is doing exactly what she is doing. She needs to run again. No one else can fill her shoes right now. Alex, the photographer.

  • Dan,

    We are going through some trying times with declining enrollment. Closing schools is not a popular thing to do.This fits in with what we are going through. You always have the right words at the right time.


  • Wow! This column hit me right between the eyes! There is a clear difference between leadership and authority in altogether too many school and business situations. Now, someone please help me to understand how I can lead around or even through authority figures to achieve long term goals. My clients can’t wait for these people to “get it” or to move on.
    However, thanks for the support, Dan.

    • Laura,
      Thanks for the kind words. As for the provocative ones, I would say: Keep asking yourself that question: “How can I lead around or even through authority figures to achieve long term goals?” Most people don’t get to that question. They abdicate, or they whine. So, how do you lead up? Well, watch for an upcoming book from my friends Kathi Elster and Katherine Crowley who wrote Working With You is Killing Me (another area about which we tend to whine). Their new book is entitled Working for you Is not Working for me.
      In my view the central practice for leading up is getting yourself fully and mentally into the shoes of the authority figure. Generally, we see from one part of the circle, but the authority figure is in the center of the circle, hearing from lots of us on the edges. What we need to do is mobilize other people around that circle to see things our way and the leader will WANT to be responsive.
      Just a thought to keep you thinking!

  • Dan,

    Your essays nearly always serve to kick my mind into gear on Monday mornings. Thank you for that.

    Growing up, my first image of a leader was always the galant standardbearer or the shining knight leading the charge to victory — always in front, always in the vanguard. It was never the cook or the page or the camp follower. The books I read were full of such heroes.

    From my later reading, my life experience, and your valuable communications my image of a leader has morphed into a seeker. Your phrases: Seek to understand, seek win-win, and seek clarity point to seeking as a major, if not the major leadership function. If we truly do turn the organizational pyramid upside down, then the organizational authorities, if they are truly leaders, will seek to support the other seekers in the organization. And, if we are all seeking solutions, seeking to fix the problems — there will be little time left to fix the blame.

    A friend of mine demonstrated to me the power of seeking. He told me to stand at the side of a room full of people, and he walked out near the center of the room. He then began gazing at the ceiling. Within seconds several people were also looking at the ceiling. In several minutes, most of the crowd had noticed and were also looking at the ceiling. He quietly lowered his gaze and walked past me with a wink. In a few more minutes several people came over and asked me what he was looking for. Not everyone noticed, nor did most really care, but some did and some followed up. He had done it all without saying a word.

    Sometimes, when I write down and post my ideas and thoughts, and then wonder if anyone cares, I remember him and his simple demonstration. At the right time and in the right place, enough eyes may turn to look and enough minds may question and seek along the same lines. It is now part of my personal concept of everyday leadership.


  • Dan:

    The law of parsimony – that the most profound truths are often the simplest – is illustrated by the authority/leadership distinction you present.

    After a particularly challenging morning your article inspired me to assess my career differently. I may not have authority in any given situation, but I can display leadership by renewing my commitment to my work and appreciating those around me who support me every step of the way. Thank you again for pointing out what we often seem to forget.

    • Debra,
      For someone who is always writing about “everday leadership,” your message is music to my ears. More importantly, when you act like you are “the leader,” it will have an infectious impact on others. See Mick McKellar’s beautiful comment above!
      Keep leading with your best self,

  • Dear Dan,
    Re: “Don’t Kick the Issue Upstairs”, I want to DISAGREE & to agree.
    DISAGREE: It’s important to be relentlessly solution-oriented on a full-time basis (CQI), but it’s also important to make sure that all key players have a chance to perceive the problem and to deliberate on possible solutions. If people spend too much time deliberating, they may become discouraged or may just not stumble on or craft a solution and give up. To maximize awareness of problems &/or opportunities, it may be useful for leaders to welcome both concerns and possible solutions, with a focus on having a shared sense of urgency about creating the best possible future.
    AGREEMENT: Life is short. If you really value issues you are aware of (and are just not interested in complaining for other reasons), spend time exploring solutions, related points, and next steps in pursuit of the result you would like to see. Think about it. Dream about it. Explore it. Be part of the efforts to achieve a solution..
    EXAMPLE OF ISSUE THAT NEEDS UPSTAIRS AND DOWNSTAIRS SOLUTION: On Feb.12th, President Lincoln’s birthday, I received a new liver. Had the liver not been donated by a very caring person and family, my wife would quite possibly be a widow for seven+ weeks now. The GIFT of LIFE was exactly that. I met my wife as a live-in staff in a program for persons with developmental disabilities in 1972 and spent 33 years working to make mental health & human services the best they could be (CQI for a Better World). Many people develop liver cancer, kidney problems, or DIE because there are not enough livers (and other organs) available. My family and I are profoundly grateful for the Extreme Kindness of the donation, but WE NEED TO BE AWARE THAT THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH ORGANS AVAILABLE. It used to be that people only had to sign the back of their driver’s license to be potential donors, now it has become more complex where people actually go to the Secretary of State’s office to ‘register to be a donor’. The more complex it is for people to become donors, the more people will die or become much more disabled because of the shortage of donors. Since my life for the past two months is thanks to the Act of Kindness of a stranger through the Gift of Life program, I am encouraging as many people as I can to sign up to be possible donors. THIS IS AN ISSUE THAT NEEDS TO BE KICKED UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS AND TO WHATEVER STAIR WE ARE EACH ON.
    People all need to OWN the issues they believe in and to assume responsibility for making things better. We should all always seek solutions, but we must also make sure others are aware of the problems, in case they have a great idea for making things better.
    Thanks Dan.
    Keep going.

    • Jerry,
      Wow! Does on “congratulate” someone with a new liver? Celebrate with them? Give praise (to God and goodness in the world) and thanks? How great for you.
      I’m not sure I understood your “disagreement” above. If you are saying that authorities can weigh in, break ties, change policies, I sure agree. Your post, however, seems to suggest that YOU are an everyday leader who is passionate about an issue and WILL make a difference. That’s great!
      But what am I missing?

  • Dan,

    Thanks for your leadership ethics comment about leadership and authority. Peter Drucker, who died on November 11, 2005 at the age of 95, said, “The three greatest leaders of the 20th Century were Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. If that’s leadership, I want no part of it.”

    Of 462 executives who were asked, “What characteristics are needed to be an effective leader today?” 56 percent ranked ethical behavior as an important characteristic, followed by sound judgment (51%) and being adaptable/flexible (47%). –Source: American Management Association, New York, NY

    Effective leadership is an interactive conversation that pulls people toward becoming comfortable with the language of personal responsibility and commitment.

    Leadership is not just for people at the top. Everyone can learn to lead by discovering the power that lies within each one of us to make a difference and being prepared when the call to lead comes.


    • John,
      Kouzes and Posner, who survey not just executives but all kinds of workers, find that “honesty” (the root of “ethical behavior”) is consistently identified by over 50% of people who are asked what characteristics matter in a “leader you would willingly choose to follow.” This is of course true of leaders who lack formal authority; it is key to building up their credibility to move others.

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