For most of my career, I took pride in my ability to lead up, a term euphemistically applied to those who use their influence to help other leaders and the organization succeed, often from a place of relative anonymity. Take a hard look at any highly successful leadership team and you’ll likely find some incredibly talented people working diligently from the shadows to ensure the group’s success.
The concept isn’t anything new but has become increasingly significant with growing organizational complexity. In his 2001 book, Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win, Michael Useem defined it as “the act of working with people above you… to help them and you get a better job done.” In a results-driven world, if you want to achieve your goals you have to learn how to leverage your influence on others. You have to learn how to lead up as well as down.
By the time I hung up my uniform jacket for the last time, I had established a strong reputation as someone adept at leading up, a reputation that greatly eased my transition after three decades of military service. But I wasn’t always good at it. In fact, there were times when I failed miserably, when my attempts to exercise influence without authority hit a brick ceiling.
WHEN YOU HIT THE BRICK CEILING
Leading up is an art. Some aspects of it can be taught, but it necessitates a certain degree of social and emotional intelligence that doesn’t come naturally to most people. At the same time, some people can’t be led from below and bristle at the attempt. It might be pride. It might be ego. It might just be personal. But no matter how hard you try to lead up, it leads nowhere.
When your best attempts to lead up hit a brick ceiling, the impact can be frustrating, annoying, and downright maddening. When your best advice is routinely ignored, dismissed, or ridiculed, it can be a hard pill to swallow. In the same situation, I didn’t react well. Speaking truth to power had never been an issue for me, and I vented my frustrations freely and often, to the point of endangering my career. Two years of having my advice rejected was a little much. It tested my patience, my resolve, and my desire to continue to serve. But… it was one of the most valuable experiences of my life.
I learned from it. I grew as a result. Despite a fair amount of bitterness, I persevered and channeled the negative energy toward a positive outcome. Instead of allowing the experience to drive me down a dark path, I leveraged the “scar tissue” to hone my ability to lead up. I perfected my art.
First, I learned to take it in stride. I picked my battles and understood that I might lose a few (or a lot) along the way. If nothing else, I stopped allowing my emotions to make decisions my career potential couldn’t cash. Second, unless lives were on the line (or someone could go to jail), I realized that I had to let it go. I didn’t want to be known as that guy who continues to fight long after a final decision is made. Third, now I don’t hold a grudge. Doing so only made matters worse, poisoning the environment in a way that only caused more problems. Nothing erodes team cohesion faster than someone with a grudge. Probably the toughest lesson for me was due to pride: don’t gloat when events prove you were right the whole time. I wore “I told you so” on my sleeve. I needed to be better. I needed to prove that I was someone worth listening to.
BREAKING THROUGH TO THE OTHER SIDE
That experience shaped the next two decades of my professional life. I had always been good at leading up, but I still had a lot to learn and needed to perfect my art. I was finger painting on construction paper when I needed to be working with a palette and canvas. The experience humbled me in a way that allowed me to become the artist I had always imagined myself to be.
There are three key elements to successfully leading up, what I have learned to call the three Ps: presence, persistence, and patience (I may consider myself an artist, but fingerpaint when I can).
- Be present. Showing up when it matters is half the fight. But it’s more than just being physically present (something that a lot of people will do). It signals a certain level of commitment when you’re actively part of the dialog and representing your chosen cause.
- Be persistent. Emotional and social intelligence are essential to leading up. As I wrote in an earlier post about speaking truth to power, those skills allow you to present an argument without becoming your own worst enemy, to be persistent without being a pain.
- Be patient. Patience is a skill that I continue to struggle with to this day but is absolutely critical to leading up. If you’re talented enough to have access to the inner circle, then you’re probably comfortable with uncertainty and risk (which are inseparable from leading up). Don’t assume anyone else is equally comfortable or that they’ll be as quick to pull the trigger on key decisions. Don’t push leaders too hard when they’re obviously uncomfortable. Leading up is a two-way street. Be patient. Bide your time. Help them find their way.
When leading up fails, you fail. The leadership and the organization may not even be affected, but you will be. But when leading up works, everyone wins – the leadership, the organization, and you. There might be a brick ceiling above you, but that doesn’t mean you have to keep hitting it. Take a step back and reevaluate your approach. Lean into the three Ps. If they don’t get you to where you want to be, nothing will.