Leading "Up" Is Crucial to Your Success
“Bishops move diagonally. That’s why they often turn up where the kings don’t expect them to be.” Terry Pratchett, Small gods
“Leading Up” is a matter of knowing and exceeding your boss’s expectations. We have already discussed the importance of knowing what the mission entails, and exceeding expectations should be part of your DNA whether dealing with internal or external customers.
There are many forms to Leading Up, which can range from subtle off-hand comments over coffee to charging into the boss’s office and breaking furniture (not recommended). Normal “Leading Up” is somewhere in between.
Upward leaders get results by helping their superiors lead; they are self-starters accustomed to taking initiative in the absence of direction. Upward leaders make sure good ideas do not die on the vine because the clarity of the boss’s vision didn’t reach down deep enough through the organization.
Getting along with the boss is vital. That is your responsibility, not hers. Remember the obvious: if you do not enhance the reporting senior’s position, she will find someone else. Braying at the boss, or being deliberately or predictably contrary to her position, is foolish and a career killer.
Above all else, the best way to get along with the boss is by doing your job exceedingly well. But even under the best of circumstances, this will get you a grade of “B”. You are an “A” player, though, and how you “Lead Up” may make the difference.
You need to insure that advice arrives from all points on the corporate compass, not just from the top down. Knowing and repeating the reporting senior’s vision and message strengthens her position, provides consistency, and assists in legitimizing everything you contribute.
“Leading Up” is stepping up. Sometimes the boss will need support as a fill-in when called elsewhere. Knowing when to take charge is an art form in itself, but there is no harm in reiterating roles and responsibilities when the boss isn’t around.
In March of 1981, then-President Ronald Reagan was the victim of an assassination attempt, and he miraculously survived. During the initial rush to provide information and amidst the understandable confusion, then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig, a former US Army general of great distinction, told a frenzied press corps that there was no problem with the executive branch of the government, stating, “I am in control here.” It was taken out of context by most who heard it and read it, as Haig’s syntactically pompous verbal style preceded him. His follow up statement that day was also glaringly inaccurate as to actual presidential ascension, but again it was generally taken out of context. But the impression, the perception, was a power hungry military guy assuming command. It has become an unfortunate anecdote using the name of a dedicated and sometime unappreciated lifelong public servant.
The safety lesson: don’t do “an Al Haig.”
Every interaction with seniors, peers, and subordinates is building (or dismantling) relationships. Never lose sight of that dynamic.
There are risks in “Leading Up.” Anything worthwhile has an element of risk. Minimize it by staying true to the mission, your boss’s intent, and the plain old standard of fair dealing with everyone.
Important safety tips:
Everything you say is being recorded.
Everything you write will be on the cover of the NYTimes.
Everything you do will be on YouTube.
And most things cannot be undone.
“Leading Up” takes courage. Gauging your boss’s mood or habits to make a pitch, or clarify a point, or to criticize an act must be approached with good judgment and discretion.
Prepare your position, and then prep your boss with the right phraseology:
RIGHT: “Jane, can I speak freely on some concerns I have?”
WRONG: “Jane, this is the goofiest operation I have ever seen.”
The friendliest, funniest, most engaging boss does not want to be mocked.
You want people to trust your actions, your opinions, and your deliverables. Only you control that. You can be the catalyst for the free and unfettered exchange of ideas, by following your reporting senior’s (assumed) good intent, and exceeding whatever expectations you are tasked with day in and day out.
Temper this discussion with the knowledge that everyone can have a legitimate difference of opinion. If you believe strongly that a certain task or element of a mission warrants a debate, be prepared. Do not disagree or shoot holes in a position simply because it seems like the target is large and inviting. Express a reservation and offer to look into alternatives personally, as a matter of exploring a “Plan B.”
RIGHT: “Ed, that widget statistic looks dated. I’d like to do a little more research on how it could be improved, if at all.”
WRONG: “Ed, that widget stat is a lot of crap. Who’s putting this stuff together, anyway?”
“Leading Up” is not expected from the B-players. This is not meant to be disparaging, but effective leadership that possesses “institutional and intuitive influence” is risky and not for someone who mentally punches a clock, no matter how effective that person may be.
“Leading Up” is not automatic: it is cultivated, sincere, and reflective of your organization’s policies.
Consider two thought-provoking questions:
Discuss with your peers: “What do you do when you know the boss is wrong?”
Ask yourself: “What do I do when the boss isn’t looking?”
And never forget: Your attitude toward your boss will be reflected in your subordinates’ attitude toward you. If you are disrespectful to your reporting senior behind his or her back, your people will see this as acceptable behavior… and treat you the same.