Facing the Challenge of Leading Up
Imagine yourself inside a crowded movie theater. You’ve got your popcorn and soft drink, and you’ve settled into your seat to enjoy a new thriller. After the movie starts, you munch happily away as the story takes off and begins to build. Then, about halfway through the movie, the tension mounts. The main character keeps making all kinds of silly mistakes that no one with common sense would make.
Suddenly, as the hero reaches for a door you know he shouldn’t open, you can’t handle it anymore. Before you can think about it, you shout:
“DON’T GO IN THERE!”
Welcome to leading from the middle.
Over the next several posts, I’m going to share with you some insights on leading from the middle of an organization. Think of it as a refresher course on my book The 360° Leader.
This week, I want to talk with you about the challenge of leading up – of influencing the people above you in your organization. To begin with, let me remind you that everyone has influence; no matter who you are, no matter where you serve, no matter what you do, you have influence with the people around you. You build this influence with your character, your actions, and your willingness to add value to others.
Even though you may not have a position of influence, you are in position to influence. That makes you a leader.
But there may be times when you don’t feel particularly influential – times when you feel you’re just one part of a greater whole. These are times when you’re tempted to believe your voice doesn’t matter, your insights don’t count, your ideas aren’t welcomed at the table. You may even serve under a leader who doesn’t understand that the best teams find and develop leaders from within.
If you find yourself in such a spot, I want you to know something: you are still in a position to do much good for your organization.
Now this doesn’t mean you should just walk into your boss’s office and make a big scene. Nor do you need to go over your boss’s head to someone even higher on the org chart. It means that you can simply and effectively make a difference by learning to lead up. You can learn to lead your leader.
In The 360° Leader I dedicate an entire section to the challenges and principles of leading up. Many of them have to do with knowing yourself and making sure you are a person of character – a person worth following or listening to. When your character is solid and your work is likewise, then you have a great foundation for leading your leader effectively.
But the biggest struggle for most people when it comes to leading up is timing. Knowing when to push and when to pause is a big part of leading your leader well.
When to Push Forward
There will be times when it is necessary to approach your boss and push forward. It’s not uncommon to discover that you have information that your boss needs to know but doesn’t. Believe it or not, the view doesn’t necessarily get clearer the higher you go on the corporate ladder. When you find yourself seeing things your boss isn’t seeing, you usually need to speak up. My brother Larry always asked his staff to tell him when they saw either a great opportunity or a great problem, because Larry was aware that he wouldn’t always be in a position to see either.
Your boss may not be as upfront or open to feedback as my brother, but wise leaders want to know when they’re missing something they should be seeing. Think about your boss’s temperament and his or her perception of you; this will give you insight into how to best proceed when you sense that they’re missing a crucial part of the picture. And how you push makes a huge difference. If you sense that a direct statement won’t be received well, consider asking several specific questions. Often, the best way to influence someone is by softly nudging them to recognize something on their own.
Pushing is especially necessary when time is of the essence; there are occasions when you and the organization simply cannot afford to let your boss “figure things out” the hard way. At those times, you need to speak up and seize the moment.
When to Press Pause
Leadership isn’t always about pushing forward; many times, it’s necessary to press pause. When you’re learning to lead up, think of yourself as an organizational meteorologist; you need to become skilled at reading the atmosphere of the office!
Reading the atmosphere means paying attention to both other people and yourself. It’s easier to pay attention to others. For example, if your boss is shouting when you come in first thing in the morning, that isn’t the wisest time to pop into the office and deliver bad news or push a new idea. Likewise, if the rest of the team seems to be on edge or going through a tough time, you need to be sensitive to how that may impact your boss’s response to your suggestions.
But really, the most important person you need to read is yourself. When you’re thinking about leading up but aren’t sure if the timing is right, ask yourself these questions about your motives:
· Will this benefit everyone, or just me?
· Is my goal to communicate with my leader, or to coerce my leader into seeing things my way?
· Do I have “skin in the game,” or does my leader bear all the risk?
· Is the timing really right, or is it just right for me?
· Am I asking too much?
If the answers to your questions point toward you, then it’s a wise idea to hit the pause button and re-examine things. Take some time to regroup, to make sure your suggestion creates a win for your boss and the organization.
Leading up can seem like a big challenge, but it is possible. By examining yourself, your boss, and the timing, you can often discover a way to make a positive influence. Every organization needs people who are willing to use their influence and lead up when necessary. No leader, at any level, wants to be the poor soul who opens the door to face a monster – especially when someone could have warned them about what was on the other side! Don’t be afraid to speak up and speak out when necessary. Just make sure you’ve taken the time to assess whether you need to push forward or press pause.
[…] my last post on this topic, I referenced motivational speaker and corporate trainer John Maxwell’s work on “leading up.” That is, providing leadership to one’s […]
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