3 Key Principles for Leading Up
Take a minute to consider the leaders in your life who have impacted you the most:
- Did they always have the most important title?
- Were they in the position of greatest authority?
- Did they have all of the degrees?
Most of the great leaders who have influenced me did have something in common, but it wasn’t titles, perceived authority or degrees. Instead, it was their understanding of their strengths, taking the time to know the strengths and weaknesses of others, and how they used that knowledge humbly and boldly for common good, not personal gain.
They were not focused on whether they were in the executive suite or on track for partnership. Instead, they focused on getting the best out of those around them so that everyone won, and the mission was accomplished.
I often hear coaching clients process all the reasons that they need to move on from their current organization or move into a higher position of leadership. The majority of their reasoning comes from their perception of reality, which usually includes some sort of artificial ceiling. When we begin to discuss and discover the opportunities that come from leading up, it’s like a light bulb brightens (or lights up) in their brains.
“Leading Up” is a concept that was popularized by Michael Useem in his book, Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win. Depending on your perspective, that title either gives you great joy or serious concerns. Maybe it's the joy from the idea of finally showing your boss what he or she has been missing. On the other hand, you could be thinking that this concept borders on manipulation. I can understand how you might feel that way too, but first, take a look at Michael’s definition of "leading up."
Michael says, “Leading up is the act of working with people above you – whether one boss, several bosses, a chief executive, a board of directors or even stockholders – to help them and you get a better job done.” He also insisted, “Organizations need more overall direction from below to think strategically, communicate persuasively and act decisively.”
All of this sounds nice - everyone working together regardless of position or authority - but why does this idea seem to only exist in a fairy tale world of concept, rather than in the everyday ins and outs of leadership? Sadly, whether you work in a business, non-profit, or church, you have likely experienced a leader who celebrates all of the ideas, strengths, and wins as if they were personally responsible for all of them. Credit is assigned to the leader, and criticism is assigned to the team.
This is a misconception of true leadership, and the greatest tragedy is that, when these leaders are seen as successful, it allows others to look up and say, “I want that too!” Who doesn’t want all of the rewards without all of the work?
When selfish leadership is exalted and rewarded, it becomes the template for mid-level employees and volunteers and permeates organizational culture.
There is a better way to positively contribute to a team and an organization while presenting yourself as an empowered and capable leader. Below are three things you can focus on as you attempt to grow your leadership by “leading up.”
Look in the Mirror
The first step to any kind of leadership is being honest with yourself about who you are and how you affect those around you. All of us are made with certain strengths and weaknesses. If you don’t know what they are, take some time to find out. There are a lot of amazing tools out there, but I prefer the Clifton Strengths 34 Assessment.
Knowing your strengths helps you to focus on the ways you are uniquely gifted to bring the best to your team or organization. It also connects you with the types of things that energize you and drain you. Find what excites and energizes you and build on those strengths.
Don’t just focus on knowing your strengths, though! Pay attention to your blind spots and weaknesses. Acknowledge and be honest about them with others.
Knowing and working on your weaknesses also provides an opportunity to create a culture of growth where everyone is encouraged to admit and work on areas of weakness.
Know Your Team
The more you acknowledge your weaknesses, the more you will see where they align with the strengths of others on your team. Likewise, if you are in a position where you don’t have “decision-making power,” you can look for ways to align your strengths with the weaknesses of those who are leading above or beside you.
Be careful, though. Don’t think of this as an opportunity to prove how much better you are at something or to make a name for yourself.
Leading up allows you to use your strengths laterally to gradually fill in the gaps that exist on your team, until the combined benefit pushes the entire organization - not just one person - towards vertical growth.
Humbly and Boldy Own the Mission and Vision of the Organization
Being aware of your own strengths/weaknesses as well as others can only get the organization so far, even with the best of intentions. Make sure that you know your organization's mission and vision, and then strategically align your giftings to be a part of solving the organizational puzzle.
If you focus on these three things, it won’t matter where you are or what role you play. Your influence will continue to expand and your positive impact on others and your organization will become exponential.
- Nate Taylor
Want to learn more about topics like this?
Join Jenni Catron, Genea Browne, and special guests for the 4Sight Leadership Institute, where we provide practical training, coaching for application, and accountability for implementation to equip you to thrive in your leadership.
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As leaders, we’re full of ideas and initiatives. We see potential and opportunity all around. We can almost taste the outcome, but often we get bogged down by how we’ll get from here to there.
The “how” can be overwhelming and discouraging, so we give up on our goals or fail to build a plan to help us achieve them.
These five steps will get you and your team on the path to moving from ideas to action! We’d love to have you join our community and access this free PDF!
Keep leading well!
Jenni Catron and The 4Sight Group
Jenni Catron is a writer, speaker, and leadership coach who consults churches and non-profits to help them lead from their extraordinary best. She speaks at conferences and churches nationwide, seeking to help others develop their leadership gifts and lead confidently. As Founder and CEO of The 4Sight Group, she consults with individuals and teams on leadership and organizational health.
Jenni is the author of several books, including Clout: Discover and Unleash Your God-Given Influence and The 4 Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership.