By: Dan Reiland
Leading from the middle of the pack is an art form of its own, especially when you need to lead up. It requires maturity, security, trust, and competence. Whether you are in your first job or have been leading for years, you never arrive when it comes to leading up. Curiously, leading up is one of the most needed and least discussed skills. Perhaps because it can sound presumptuous, maybe even arrogant or manipulative in nature to “lead your boss.” Leading up, however, is not the same as leading your boss.
Part of this issue is that so often, when the subject of leading up surfaces, it’s about what is perceived as an insecure, disconnected, or difficult boss. These situations exist and often require experienced coaching, but candidly, they are not the common experience. So, let’s leave those situations for another time.
This post assumes a healthy and productive working relationship; not a perfect one, but a good one. Specifically, your leader cares about you, develops you, listens to you, and is honest with you. Of course, they are not perfect. All leaders have weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, and flaws, but in a good working relationship, your boss is clearly for you and has your best interest at heart.
In this context, what is the purpose of leading up well? To serve both your boss and the church to the best of your ability.
What are the results?
You are trusted more, empowered at a greater level, able to make a significant contribution, you enjoy your job, and rise in responsibility.
1) Earn your voice.
You have a leadership voice. Your team, especially your boss, wants to hear what you think. But it’s wise to earn your voice in the process. When it comes to your leadership voice, here is a good sequence to follow.
Find your voice
Earn your voice
Use your voice wisely for the good of the people and the church.
I’ve coached leaders who have a strong and valuable leadership voice but hesitate to use it, and leaders who haven’t earned their voice and use it too often. This is an important skill to learn, and in many ways, the remaining seven practices help you earn your voice and lead up effectively.
2) Manage yourself, so you don’t need to be managed.
It’s often been said, “If you don’t manage yourself, someone else will.” That’s a lose-lose situation. You lose the trust and freedom you desire, and your leader loses time tending to things you could have handled on your own.
“Lead yourself well” is the more popular phrase, but it’s essentially the same idea. Leading yourself well does not exclude needing a coach, mentor, or some help. We all need good advice and support along the way. Leading yourself is about things like managing your emotions, time, and priorities.
If you can’t manage yourself well, over time, others won’t trust you, respect you, or follow you. Eventually, they may not even listen to you.
Here’s the point; you matter, your leadership voice matters, and people are counting on you. So don’t forfeit your potential by ignoring the basics.
3) Know when to speak up and when to be quiet.
I remember well when John (Maxwell) said to me, “Dan, don’t give me a history lesson. If you think the train is headed over a cliff, tell me before it happens.” That was a leadership masterclass in 30 seconds.
If you think your boss is making a mistake, say so before it happens. Anyone can say, “Yeah, I saw that coming” (after-the-fact,) but how is that helpful? Trust your gut and speak up. Speak up respectfully, but speak up.
In contrast, when you have spoken up and been heard, it’s now time to be quiet. Don’t make your boss feel like they must always take your advice. They soon won’t want to hear it any longer.
4) Add specific value.
The first way to add value to those above you is to fulfill your responsibilities and accomplish your goals. It’s surprising how quickly others want to know what you think (hear your leadership voice) when you are really good at what you do.
Adding value to those above you is not office politics; it represents a servant’s heart and the desire to lighten their load when you can. It is true that if someone wants to add value only to those above them, that is unfortunate, but that is not my assumption.
A simple way to add value is to ask your boss this question, “How can I help you today?” Adding value is good; adding specific value is great. Find out the real needs and be willing to do what others won’t. Take the initiative.
5) Do what you’ve been asked to do before you ask for what you want to do.
It’s tough to wait, I know. We all have drive, dreams, and want to make a difference. However, it’s essential to allow your growth to catch up with your aspirations and give others room to see your value. It’s unwise to attempt to force this process. My advice is to thoroughly love what you’ve been asked to do, build that ministry well, enjoy the process, and in time you’ll be asked to do your dream job. If you are not invited into your dream job where you are, you’ll have been preparing, and another door will open.
6) Seek to be aware of the pressures your leaders carry.
When you’re aware of some of the pressure your leader(s) carry, it helps you gain perspective on their decisions, how they use their time, and what matters most to them. You don’t have to fully understand your boss’s pressure, but just being aware and grateful you don’t have to carry it increases your ability to lead up.
Here’s the catch-22, unless you have a particularly close relationship, your boss is not likely to burden you with their pressures. In this case, don’t push to know, but pay attention and be discerning. You’ll gain enough awareness to lead up well.
7) Become a stand-out problem solver.
Anyone can spot a problem and complain; leaders find solutions and create. The best problem solvers lead up more effectively and therefore rise up faster in responsibility. A six-word course in leadership sounds like this, “solve problems, make progress, help people.
The first thing you need to become a good problem solver is to think about time. Where in your calendar have you set aside time to think? It might be 30 minutes a day or 4 hours once a week. There’s more than one plan that works, but protect some time to think.
8) Understand the limits and boundaries of the relationship.
A clear understanding of the limits and boundaries of your relationship with your boss is the best path toward a fulfilling and rewarding day-to-day rapport. Even if you wish the design of the relationship were different, knowing the reality is essential to enjoying your job. If you are not sure what your relationship is supposed to look like, ask. That conversation often opens the door for both of you to experience a greater enjoyment of the relationship. If merely asking the question in a respectful tone causes tension, slow down and ask permission to bring it up at another time.
The point here, either way, is to minimize frustration and maximize enjoyment.