Leading Up


An editorial note:  an AOL spam filter refused RFL to 1300 readers last week.  Please mark me as a “safe sender.”

Two weeks ago I wrote about a question raised by a caller to the Winner’s Circle, my Saturday morning radio show (streaming live from 7-9 AM on Saturdays).  The gentleman, an upper level manager in a business that was going through a change in management, was looking for advice about his situation: rumors flying, people unfocused, uncertainty abounding. My colleagues on the radio talked about the importance that he communicate as much as he can.

But could he do anything about the organization as a whole?  Is there anything you can do when the higher-ups aren’t talking?  I received a similar question in an email from a State of Michigan manager, who was suffering from a lack of information that would be so helpful to him and his team in their work. These pleas for information are, of course, examples of a broader question:  How do you lead up?  What do you do when people above you really don’t seem to see, or care about, something that seems so obviously important?  Isn’t this last question a huge part of our lives at work, and our frustrations.  It’s a ubiquitous question, for we were frustrated with how our parents and teachers “didn’t get it,” and now how politicians, and bosses, just don’t see what’s so obvious to us?

Enough questions.  Here are some answers:

1.     Don’t quit on your desire to have the authorities see what you believe is important.  If you don’t speak up, you’ll never be led well.  And to do that . . . you have to put yourself in the authority’s shoes.  You have to make your case, but by seeing their world:

2.     Make your point based on the values you know matter to them.  They might value profit, respect, excellence, or any number of other things.  In our callers’ case, you can bet the owners – new and old – care about the productivity of the company.  Understanding that productivity was suffering from all the misinformation, would matter to them.  Much as we complain about authorities, they have values.  We need to see them and speak to them.

3.     Make your point based on realities you see.  Often we assume that the authorities see what we see.  They don’t.  They’re in the “corner office,” they’re in the middle of things.  One gift we can give is data.  And people like gifts.  So speak to them about what is concretely happening.  And, of course, connect it to values – to what they want to happen.

4.     Be ready with solutions.  Concrete.  Practical.  Thought out.

What do you think?  Why not share some stories of success you’ve had leading up at my blog on this topic.  Some of the best Reading for Leading is found there by those who

Lead with their best self!



**Traditionally, March has been known around the nation as Reading Month.  As RfL focuses so much on “reading and leading” at home and in the workplace, I wanted to encourage you to both write on my blogsite and read some of the great comments there.  In the next three weeks, I’ll be reading the blog entries.  I’ll pick the best entries and offer the authors a choice of a number of interesting leadership books that are on my shelf.  Please remember to include your email address on your comment so we may contact you to get your preferences and shipping information!

  • The State of Michigan offers a free class that I just recently attended on “Managing Change and Transition” (CHANGCS002) – the class is excellent for either employees or managers.

  • Your article reminds me of a couple of books that inspired me. They are “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” and “The Power of Positive Thinking.” These books remain relevant today.

  • Dan,

    I completely agree with “Leading Up”. Preparation is the key!

    Two years ago, as a new Human Resource Manager in my family-owned company, we were faced with lay-offs. Decisions were made behind closed doors and I was not even aware of who was going to be affected.

    So, I made a plan. I looked at the situation through the eyes of the Owner/CEO. I prepared the conversation based on things he would see as important: productivity and profit.

    Most importantly, I had a solution (in fact, I came prepared with a Plan B in case he did not like the first solution) for communicating to everyone in a timely manner to aleviate rumors from flying.

    It worked! While the lay-offs were inevitable, we were able to keep them to a minimum and ease many people’s anxiety.

    Excellent article, Dan!

  • Many corporate leaders are wrestling with trying to get their organizations to innovate through taking risks on-the-job.

    After years of cost-cutting initiatives and growing job insecurity, most executives don’t feel like putting themselves on the line. Add to that the heightened expectations on individual performance, where a one-year term determines a large bonus, managers postpone risky decisions for fear of failure—making mistakes that could lead to innovative successes. That’s why it is difficult for executives and their direct reports to make the shift from a play-it-safe corporate culture to an innovation-driven culture.

    Here in Detroit, automotive leaders are talking about an innovation-driven culture that is imperative in today’s globally competitive world. But walking the talk within the culture will require corporate leadership to recruit or promote new business unit executives who don’t have a fear of failure.

    A leader’s independent judgment shows up as activity in his or her brain areas involved in emotion which is the cost for going against the status quo of the group. However, most people wish to socially conform to what others in the group think and feel.

    People go in the direction leadership is walking, not pointing.

    Have you ever stood in a group of people on the sidewalk of a busy city corner waiting for the light to change so you could cross the street? If so, you may have noticed what happens when one person, a leader, decides to cross the street against the light (when there is no vehicular traffic approaching). Once the leader begins to go across the street against the light, most of the people observing the leader perceive it is acceptable for them to cross, too.

    “There’s something unique and different that makes a leader, and it’s not about creativity or courage or integrity,” says Marcus Buckingham, author of The One Thing You Need to Know…About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success (Free Press).

    As important as they are, you can have those attributes and still fail to be a great leader. A leader’s job is to rally people toward a better future. Leaders can’t help but change the present, because the present isn’t good enough. They succeed only when they find a way to make people excited by and confident in what comes next.

  • Just a note to remark on the importance of Parker Palmer’s comments in Kalamazoo last week – his framework of the ‘soul work’ needed by our society really resonated with me. From our national addiction to violance to our institutional propensity to play a significant role in defeating their own missions, to the empty individuals who have no internal driver and are operating out of their emptiness we are confronted with the need for leadership that leads from the soul. Thank you for your ongoing commitment to the development of soul-full leaders.

  • Two things I look forward to every week are; 1.RFL & 2. going to a local elementary school and mentoring a third grader in reading skills via the FACTS Program. I work with adults, focusing on their training needs all week long, and it is refreshing to read with a young person who has few preconceived notions about how things are or should be. Being open and receptive to new ideas and concepts should not be only for children. Try leading beyond your workforce and investing in our future by joining a mentor program near you.

  • I’m facing a similar situation that has me tremendously frustrated, and is making our workplace very stressed. I work for a city as a department head. Our department has a separate millage so that, despite the fact that the general fund is short funding, our department has the dollars to hire for several professional positions that we truly need to be able to accomplish our task.
    Due to the low general funds, a hiring freeze is in effect. Any ideas on how I could convince the administrator that we are compounding problems by not taking action to hire in any positions we can? I believe that taxpayers can understand separate funds – and I truly believe that anyone who can hire someone in this economic crisis should do so to help every family we possibly can to keep from going under.
    So far my arguments have fallen on deaf ears. I’ve tried to use some of the ideas presented above, like appealing to what I perceive as the administrator’s higest values, and the realities of SE Michigan, to no avail. Help!

    • Dave,

      That must be very frustrating.

      First of all, I’d listen very very closely to the reasons given for why the city won’t head in this direction. I would listen to see if there is a win/win – a way to protect their concerns, while achieving your aims.

      The other thing I would say is: draw a picture. Put your boss as a dot in the center. Around the boss, put dots to represent each of the people that influence him/her – their boss, the newspapers, their spouse, each department head, etc. You’ll see that you are giving the boss one slice of opinion – you’re just one spoke on their wheel of influence.

      So, is there a way to move other opinions/opinion makers to move the boss in the same direction? I don’t mean to directly manipulate; that could be dangerous to your job security. But raise some of the issues around your issue and see where people are at. For instance, I assume you are talking about available federal money. Here’s a value that you could share with folks (like, say a mayor): Nobody wants Michigan to get 90 cents on the dollar of federal money, right? If the mayor knows there is federal money that’s not being used . . .

      Stay at it! It’s a great question/problem. Leadership is not easy and is sometimes dangerous, but engaging people in an honest and values-driven way is ALWAYS good . . . though it may take a while and take different twists and turns.


  • Dan,

    Congratulations on your leading up article! I still refer to the process as “attempting to drive the bus from the back seat.”

    Change is uncomfortable and I use the rule of thumb that people will change only when it becomes more uncomfortable to stay the same than to make the necessary changes. It is amazing how much discomfort and waste people will endure to avoid changing anything, and how much they will resent you pushing for a change they do not want.

    One must be careful to present suggestions as an opportunity, and I’ve always found it helpful if I simply “cast the bread on the waters” and allow my superiors to put their names on the idea, quietly accepting whatever credit they may be willing to share. I found early on that it is never wise to side-step the chain of command, but rely on old-fashioned humilty. (Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.) It is amazing how much you can get done if you are not worried about who gets the credit.

    At a previous employer, a major Michigan educational institution, I wanted my department to pursue desktop videoconferencing, video/audio streaming, and on-line course delivery software. We had no budget for such, but I knew there was research money soon to be available, so I drafted a research proposal that I could not submit (I did not have a Ph.D. or faculty status) and turned it over, lock, stock and letterhead to my department head (who had both a Ph. D. and faculty status). He got credit for the research grant, and I got three years to work on a wonderful and exciting project that brought real benefits to the school.

    Another lesson that was drummed into my head comes from Napoleon. It is the principle of completed staff work. You didn’t go to Napoleon’s staff meeting to complain that “our supply lines are too long, they are under attack, and our soldiers need supplies immediately!” and then wait for the Emperor/General to dazzle the staff with brilliant strategies and crisp decisive orders. No. You would go to Napoleon and stated, “our supply lines are too long, they are under attack, and our soldiers need supplies immediately!” and “to resolve this problem we could a., b , c…” offering a variety of well-researched and thought out solutions from which he could pick and choose, applying his own special genius to details and execution. Often this simple step constitutes the difference between being viewed as a valuable staff member or a “chronic complainer.”

    • Dear Mick,

      Thanks so much for your feedback. We’d love to send you one of our leadership reads to recognize Reading Month! Could you please email me your contact information at annarkohn@gmail.com, and we’ll show you your options!

      Thanks for reading and leading with your best self,


  • Finally an article that speaks the truth. One of my biggest problems is getting the boss to see what type of troubles they are causing when they make a decision without all the facts. For years I have been working in the court system. Most of the communications is from the top down. When I try to explain to a manager we need to make a change, I get the “deer in the head light look”. I have tried the “give them credit” apporach without any avail. One thing I have learned, and you touched on it in your article, is the biggest thing people need is respect. I must respect my boss enough to tell them there is a problem, and they need to respect me enough to listen to the problem. Together we can resolve many situations without going completely to the top. I have printed your article and gave it to my supervisor to read. Thank you.

    • Mike,
      Thanks for the positive feedback.
      I agree with you about the importance of respect. Frankly, I think it’s easy to say “mom/dad/boss/ceo/president is an idiot; if s/he had any brains, they’d….” As I was saying in my comment to Dave’s great questions above, get your feet in the boss’s mental shoes first. Appreciate all the pressures facing them. Not to say, “oh, poor little boss,” but to say, “wow, she’s facing all those different views; no wonder it’s so hard for her to hear me. NOW, how do I make sure she has this important data, reality, values in her thinking.”
      Hope giving RFL to your boss led to a good conversation about how to move things forward and get solutions that are reality-based!

  • This topic is challenging because of the demand for honesty it presents. I have learned in the past few years that one of the biggest hinderances to “next level” leadership is overcoming false humility. I did not want to admit that I wanted to be in charge, the leader; that my efforts were not intended to take anything from anyone else, but certainly to enhance my own position. This malady infects people who sincerely don’t want their efforts misread.
    Leading up demands an admission that you think you know something that your superiors in the organization don’t. That opinion is anathema to loyalty, in most views. It is uncomfortable to suggest that and maintain a posture of humility, thus the minimum response to the article.
    It is also true, that the practice of leading up always makes room for advancement and organizational upgrade. Most of us do not want to seem selfserving, so we don’t talk about it, even though we practice it.

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