5 ways successful leaders lead their bosses

According to a Gallup poll of more than one million employed workers, poor leadership is the number one reason employees leave and go elsewhere¹. As the saying goes, people leave their bosses, not their organisations.

It’s easier to complain about your boss rather than face the discomfort of leading up.

We all have knowledge gaps, blind spots and development needs – including our bosses. Whether the relationship with your boss is excellent, terrible, or somewhere in between, leading up is part and parcel of leading. The challenge is being willing to do it, even when it’s uncomfortable.

In simple terms, leading up is providing value and support that helps your boss accomplish what the organisation needs to achieve to succeed – compared to managing up, which is more about the day to day delivery.

Your boss wants and needs your assistance – even if he/she isn’t asking for it.

Maria was afraid that by calling her boss Pete out on his inability to convey his vision for the organisation, she would be undermining him. Not wanting to speak up about his shortcomings, she grew increasingly frustrated when change efforts stalled unnecessarily. With some coaching, Maria seized the opportunity in coaching Pete to help him find some effective ways to communicate his big picture of success. Pete appreciated the open feedback and as a result, both her credibility and their relationship improved.

Leading up might be risky – especially if you perceive you don’t have the influence you’d like – but if you have data, advice, insight or perspective that is valuable, then isn’t it worth taking the risk? Ultimately, part of your job is to help your boss (and organisation) be successful, regardless of how well you both get along.

What value can you give your boss?

Leading up often occurs in shades of grey where judgement calls are required, especially as you climb the career ladder. Things don’t get clearer the higher you go. Being able to read the situation carefully – for example, the atmosphere, mood/emotions, politics and agendas, as well as perceptions of you – will help you to know when to:

  • Hold back or speak up
  • Nudge gently or be assertive
  • Persist or let the matter go

Here are five principles to help you lead up successfully:

Be clear about the greater good. Will this benefit everyone or just me? Am I wanting to add value or am I wanting to be right (which is my ego talking)?

Be intentional about how you show up. What is my emotional state? Do I need to flex my usual style given the current environment?

Know your stuff: Have I done my homework or am I relying on my opinions? Which part of the puzzle is missing specifically? What are the best questions to help shape the best thinking on this?

Be prepared to listen first. Acknowledge your boss’s ideas and perspectives and influence from where they are, rather than assuming you can influence from your thinking set first. Your boss wants to feel heard – just like you do.

Don’t ask too much from the conversation. Don’t have fixed expectations or outcomes on how the conversation must go or how your boss must agree with you. Let the conversation flow and maybe the goal is to get to first base rather than hit a home run. Seek to find common ground and influence from there.

Bringing it all together

Wise leaders want feedback and to know for example, when there’s a gap they’re not seeing. Although leading up might seem challenging at first, it’s a necessary skill any wise leader should develop over time.


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