Leading Up


I am not sure if it’s courage or naivety, but I have never been afraid of “leading up.” In a hierarchical structure, leading up means managing those above you—influencing the direction of your organization despite a lack of positional authority. It’s giving your boss your honest opinion and asking for what you need. It isn’t mutiny; it’s mutual respect. And, sadly, it’s a dying art.

Entire books have been written about psychological safety and creating fearless organizations, in part because more and more people are afraid to speak up. While I am a huge advocate of paying attention to how you say things and always encourage my clients to make requests with respect and empathy, this is not the same as biting your tongue. Many of the challenges I address with my clients deal with either a reluctance to provide their boss with feedback or a resistance to make a request. In most cases, they are afraid of the consequences of rocking the boat. But the ability to talk honestly with a superior is one of the most liberating assets an employee can have.

I’ll give you an example. Years ago, I was a senior associate at Coopers & Lybrand, now PWC, working on a project in Central New York. The project required an expertise that we didn’t have in our office. Someone mentioned that this expertise resided with a partner from NYC who was a “national treasure.” The memo that I missed was that no one reached out to this guy, especially not a new associate. So, lacking this information, I found his contact information and dialed him up.

Less than a week later I brought all the information we needed for our project to the team meeting. My manager and teammates were incredulous.

They asked, “How did you get it?”

“I called the partner in New York.”

“Nobody ever calls him.”

“That explains why he had so much time to talk to me.”

This type of experience should be the rule, not the exception. Employees and leaders need to eliminate the real or perceived barriers preventing them from making bold suggestions or asking for what they need. We’ve got to stop obsessing about the chain of command and fretting over being challenged. Set a direction, turn your people loose, and let them engage with whomever they need to, to get the job done.

I should note that I am gaining more awareness of how my station in life—my identities, background, and privileges—have helped me feel empowered to ask for what I need. My opinions are never devalued because of how I look or speak; my competency is never questioned because of the color of my skin or the clothes I wear. Being a white man makes leading up a lot less scary.

But it shouldn’t be scary for anybody! If companies truly value diversity, they should prioritize creating psychologically safe workplaces where anyone with a good idea or a good question can have their say, regardless of their position. A business that promotes leading up is a business that is never lacking in innovative ideas. Trust, safety, and open communication are the only prerequisites for this vital resource.

If you’re trying to overcome your hesitance to speak up to your superiors, or would like to promote psychological safety in your organization, send me an email at ralph@getemergent.com.

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