Leading Up

As Reading for Leading readers know, leadership is not a position. Leadership is an activity. But what happens when the person in the position of authority is not leading well? Then don’t wait.  Don’t whine.  Be the leader!!!

Note: I did not say:  Act like you’re in authority.  That’s a pretty sure way to get whacked! You want to lead through them.  Here, I follow my friends Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner and briefly suggest how two of their five practices of exemplary leadership come into play when leading up.

First, encourage the heart.  Uh-huh. You are going to en-courage the authority who is dis-couraging you.  This one is tricky.  First, because how do you encourage someone when you don’t think they’re doing a great job?  But, from the authority’s perspective, why would they listen to you when you are bringing an attitude (they’ll feel it) that they are incompetent, unjust or otherwise not cutting it. So, what do you do?  Lie?!  No!!  Pay attention. Look for what you can honestly see is working.  And allow me to be direct:  If you can’t see someone doing some thing well, then you have a problem.  Leaders do have problems seeing fully and fairly, but real leaders do their own work in order to see fully and fairly, and not to be blinded by the negative they see. Just saying.

The second reason it’s tricky to encourage up the chain is that none of us wants to look like a suck-up — neither to the boss, nor to our peers.  But the truth is authorities need encouragement, too. Poor managers probably most need encouragement, are the most insecure. You shouldn’t have to encourage them, but you’ll likely need to in order to be trusted and listened to.  And the way around being a suck-up is to be genuine. Can you still be misinterpreted? Of course.  But the more you can generate positivity in your life with everyone you deal with, the more genuine the upward praise will seem.

With a foundation of encouragement in place, the biggest work is to engage the authority in sharing vision. Authorities presumptively think they are responsible for the vision, for articulating the picture of success, and setting the big goals. We largely confer this power and defer to their visioning, their goal setting.  But when we’re really frustrated it’s almost always because we don’t feel like we’re moving in a clear, smart or moral direction.  So, ask for time to talk — and listen — about the vision.  Two simple questions will guide your path: “What is your vision for success?” And, “Why? Help me see what we’ll we have if we achieve that?”  This is a respectful question, not a challenge.  And the more fully you can listen them out, the more likely they will be to take an interest in what you think.

Then, your opportunity to lead up arises. Then, arises your chance to

Lead with your best self,


  • Great insight, Dan. I hope we get a chance to talk about “making your team OWN the vision”.

    Cheers & God Bless!

  • It has been my experience that all must answer to someone, boss, supervisor, shareholder, voter. At the end of the day, responsibility to handle risks, big or small, and sudden challenges successfully are what sustain & validate leadership. Someone just starting out may not know their life’s goal or place to fit in but history may provide a clue that it is critical to possess an ethical core in your own life’s practices if you are thinking long term. Given the surprise, that the job you may end up with was not what you expected in the beginning. The value of doing the right thing with your life may be the key to true leadership. Recently I thought about this as I looked back at my wife’s grandfather. His name was Morris Baron, an immigrant from Poland, who after arriving became a USA citizen and managed to be admitted to Harvard. He graduated the class of 1904. One of his fellow classmates was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Later on in 1909, each class member wrote in to explain how they were doing in life. FDR wrote that he was a clerk in a NYC law firm but he could see himself one day managing a charity in New York City. I was struck by this note of ethical responsibility, FDR wanting to lead a charity in order to benefit the needy and lucky for all us ended up later on doing just that.

    • Bill,
      I love the FDR story. Never heard it before.
      Develop the core. It’s the fad in America, right? Strengthen your core. But as you put it the moral core, the character core, now that’s the one that really matters!

  • Leading up by encouraging leaders is not easy. A leader may take it as an insult that they are being given encouragement. I think of a leader as someone who does not need encouragement, since so often what I see leaders being criticized. The criticism can be creative, in that there are people who want to see the leader fail, and will arrange for problems one way or another; for instance by not telling the leader what is going wrong, and so letting things get worse.
    Encouraging a leader or pointing out their successes, can put a person on bad terms with other employees, who cannot stand the leader.
    There are some who obtain leadership positions they are not suitable for, so encouraging such a person can also have bad consequences.
    In short, considerable thought is needed before complimenting, or otherwise encouraging a leader.

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