Ten Tips for ‘Leading Up’

When we serve on a team that we do not personally lead, we can experience frustration building up within. Rather than bite our tongue, suffer in silence, or run to greener pastures, there is an alternative. ‘Lead Up.’ There are some effective and simple strategies that allow anyone to proactively bring change but in a spirit of humility and helpfulness.

First, consider your framework.

We need to re-frame the negative talk or the limiting assessments we sometimes make. Perspective is important. Having true faith in the future doesn’t react, it responds. It also sees with different eyes. What might seem wrong or ineffective, can be so because of how we are conditioned to respond. Proving or pressing a point might work well when writing essays or settling playground squabbles, but relationships need tact and wisdom.

Second, use the right lens.

Ask more questions and make fewer statements. When we react, or tell, or ‘express’, we may in fact be doing right, but in doing right we can actually be so wrong. We are allowed to be emotional, need to vent safely, and want to state perspectives. There is a right way to do this and the discipline of asking questions can help to clarify where needed. It also helps us to maintain a gracious listening posture that invites others to a journey of discovery and change.

Third, implement the strategies.

  1. Build a reputation for reliability and excellence. Emerson said that “What you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” Character backs up action, and then action needs … well … action. Get some ‘street-cred’ and work hard. Don’t minimise but optimise. Lead others (and yourself) well and earn your stripes.
  2. Do things others aren’t always prepared to do. Be a willing team player who considers the group and the bigger picture, rather than simply ‘working to rule.’ Make yourself invaluable and worthy of the admiration of others. You’ll find more love coming back from others, too. Chances are the leader above you has done more than their fair share of time on the hard jobs, mundane tasks, and difficult people. So, help out and lighten their load, one you may not understand as much as you think.
  3. Choose being effective over being right. This puts team, or others, first. We don’t have to be the smartest in the room. There is nothing to win at another’s expense. We don’t determine ‘effective’ either; say your bit, make your contribution, then let the matter rest with those who are responsible. Pursue success in things that matter but hold this lightly because it is not all about you.
  4. Be intentional and well-prepared. Impromptu speeches or knee-jerk responses might initiate conversations but seldom bring helpful dialogue. Research a position, prepare for meetings, focus on what matters most and how a case is to be made if you want to push through difficulty or disagreement meaningfully. We might need help from others, but we also need to play our part professionally.
  5. Partner together in a common connection. There should be plenty you have in common with a leader ‘above’ you in authority and this becomes a context for working together. Remember that, in all likelihood, they care and want the best for you. That might even be why they push back to address your blind spots. Maybe they just disagree. Maybe they even know better on some fronts. Use the differences and diversity in the room to work collaboratively. Not ‘me’ versus ‘you’, not even ‘us’ versus them’, but ‘we’ together.
  6. Observe more and react less. If your environment feels less collaborative than you would like, you will need to say less anyway. Your future leadership growth is sometimes aided by learning experiences in which you feel some pain and then consider why it is that you feel what you feel. Really. Process with a safe person, a counsellor if needed. If you feel inferior or subordinated because of a power gradient then reword what you feel in more positive terms. But keep your eyes open to the few things you can still learn, not the many you have already learned.
  7. Disagree without being disagreeable. If there is any amount of tension in your voice, it can be a turn-off. We become less rational and effective when we are emotionally ‘flooded’ too. By all means state a view but coolly discussing it makes any eventual emotion more poignant. Remember the art of questioning and avoid being a contrarian philosopher because credibility seldom remains for those who have little skin in the game.
  8. Understand the perspective of your leader. Bring your solutions to the problems you see, don’t just complain. Leaders are often aware of problems but might also see pitfalls or roadblocks associated with fixing them. Often, competing demands, resource challenges, complex people dynamics, or myriad other reasons can make it much harder to sit in the ‘hot seat’ of leadership. There is just more to consider when you are the one who has to live with the heat of a decision. Empathise often and allow for weaknesses, just as you want others to do for you.
  9. Make your leader look good. Affirm them often. You will not find it easy to garner the respect of others under your own influence if you struggle to show respect. This is hardest, but also most inspiring, when you demonstrate stickability in tough times and also when you back a leader on a decision you don’t agree with. Sure, there are times when lines are crossed or we need to pull up stumps and move on, but not often. In fact, people should never normally know of overt disunity among leaders. A united front on decisions and respectful diversity in teams will foster unity without always needing uniformity.
  10. Keep a healthy self-image and don’t expect credit. We live in a world struggling with an affirmation void. The intoxicating allure of approval is sometimes hard to distinguish from necessary praise and encouragement. If we are focused on receiving these a little too often, let’s ask why and where it is that the drivenness really comes from. Let’s also seek to give affirmation to others around us but with the sense of self-worth strong enough to look past those who overlook paying it back.

Finally, there are times to get some help. Third party mediation can provide accountability and reflective listening to advance conversations. All too often, though, we let ourselves and others down by taking the easy option … by running out the door. If the volcanic pressure is building within, don’t wait until the burden is too great, or lapse into damaging outbursts or reactions. Get help.

And don’t neglect the all-important investment into your own ability to keep on ‘leading up.’


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