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"If you want to get ahead, leading up is much better than kissing up." Dan Reiland, leadership expert and author

It may be better - but it's considerably more challenging! If you're trying to make an impact from your place in the middle of an organization, if you're trying to become a 360-Degree Leader, the greatest obstacle you face is "leading up." As renowned leadership expert John C. Maxwell explains: "Most leaders want to lead, not be led." How do you overcome this challenge?

Lead the Leader

Most leaders don't want to be led - but they do "want to have value added to them." If you approach leading up from this standpoint, if you show them how you can add value, you have a much better shot at influencing them. And remember, leadership isn't about your position or title; it's about your ability to influence.

John Baldoni, author of Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up, concurs. He tells Harvard Business Review: Position your argument or suggestion "so that it is good for others. It's good for the team. It's good for the organization. It's not about you as the person leading up. It's about the positive effect you will have on the organization."

Wharton professor and Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management Michael Useem says, "Leading up requires great courage and determination." He ain't kiddin'! At the same time, Maxwell assures us that with average, or better than average, leadership skills and hard work, we can become effective 360-Degree Leaders. How?

9 Principles for Leading up

Start with these basic principles, identified by Maxwell. If you practice these consistently, and keep your value-add in mind, "your influence will increase, and you will have more and more opportunities to lead up."

  1. Lead Yourself Exceptionally Well

    In The 360-Degree Leader, Maxwell argues that you have to change your mindset from "I want a position that will make people follow me," to "I want to become a person whom people will want to follow." That starts with you. Become the leader you'd want to follow. How? Learn to manage these critical areas:

    • Your emotions. Are your needs secondary to those of the organization, or vice versa?
    • Your time. Do you value your time or squander it?
    • Your priorities. Do you prioritize the tasks and activities you do best? The areas to which you add most value?
    • Your energy. Do you focus on what really matters or waste energy?
    • Your thinking. Do you feed your mind with quality information so it delivers great ideas?
    • Your words. Do you use your words meaningfully and to help others win?
    • Your personal life. Is your life chaotic? Does it drain you and detract from your work?

    In managing these areas, you'll develop the focus, discipline, and influence you need to lead effectively from the middle.

  2. Lighten Your Leader's Load

    Maxwell writes, "When the boss succeeds, the organization succeeds. Conversely, it is almost impossible for you to win if your boss fails." So what can you do to facilitate success? It starts with a basic principle: Do your job well. And do it well consistently.

    But 360-Degree Leaders go beyond basics. Take the initiative to ask your leader how you can help, which projects or duties you can take on.

    And, perhaps much harder, offer constructive feedback. Develop the ability, and the rapport, to tell your leaders what they need to hear - even if it is not what they want to hear.

  3. Be Willing to Do What Others Won't.

    How many times have you heard a colleague say, "That's not my job," or, "Nope, not doing that; it's not in my job description"? These words are not in the 360-Degree Leader's lexicon. Leading up requires you to develop influence, and you cannot do that without:

    • Taking on tough jobs.
    • Paying your dues.
    • Working selflessly towards goals.
    • Succeeding with difficult people.
    • Putting yourself on the line.
    • Admitting your faults without excuses.
    • Doing more than is expected.
    • Being the first to help.
    • Performing tasks beyond your job description.
    • Holding yourself accountable.

    If these items were on a checklist, how many could you mark off? Are you willing to do what others won't - for the good of the organization?

  4. Do More than Manage - Lead.

    Manager and leader are not necessarily synonymous. A 360-Degree Leader prioritizes people over projects, vision over procedures, and relationships over rules. As Peter Drucker said, "one does not 'manage' people. The task is to lead people."

    If you're a manager now, what can you do to develop as a leader? Maxwell suggests thinking about how your actions and decisions affect the entire organization - to "prove you can move past management to leadership."

  5. Invest in Relational Chemistry.

    "People won't go along if they can't get along with you."

    Remember Dan Reiland's advice: getting along with your leader isn't about kissing up. It's about understanding his or her priorities, vision, interests, personality, and passions. Investing time and energy in building a strong relationship helps you earn your leader's trust - which knocks down a great many obstacles to leading up.

  6. Be Prepared When You Take Your Leader's Time.

    I've always believed that time can't be managed; it can only be used. That said, your leader has a limited amount of this valuable commodity. Be prepared when you need his or her time.

    Come to meetings with the right information, the right data, the right answers, or the right questions. This ensures that you both get what you need from the time - and that your leader sees you as a value-add, not a time-waste.

  7. Know When to Push Forward - and When to Back Off.

    Leading up is a lot like performing: you have to be able to read an audience and deliver the right words at the right times. When do you push for what you believe in - and when do you step back?

    Maxwell advises that you check your motives before speaking up. Are you focused on your personal agenda? Or do you want what's best for the organization? Before you push, make sure your intentions reflect the needs of the organization, that your timing is right, and that your plan doesn't put others, including your boss, at risk.

  8. Become a Go-To Player.

    In Forbes, Jeff Schmidt writes that go-to players "have the 'it' factor. They are the fixers who step up and do the dirty work. Under pressure, their peers [and leaders] turn to them to identify and implement solutions."

    They're the ones you pass the ball to at the 3-point line when you're 2 points down with a second left in the game. And they're the ones who'll nail the shot.

    If you want to develop influence and effectively lead from the middle, you need to be the go-to. Are you willing to get your hands dirty? Put yourself on the line? Go outside your comfort zone?

  9. Be Better Tomorrow Than You Are Today

    Maxwell writes, "The key to personal development is being more growth-oriented than goal-oriented." Commit to continual improvement. How? Learn your craft; master it. Reach out for the help of those who are more experienced or gifted. Keep sharpening your skills, meeting your goals - and setting higher ones for yourself.

    If you can't nail the 3-point shot now, work towards it. If you don't always have great timing when pushing your ideas, develop a better internal clock. Tackle each of these 9 principles: and remember, when you strive to be better than you were yesterday, leading up is a manageable, attainable goal.


Larry Hart

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