Contrary to what many people think, leadership has nothing to do with titles and organizational charts. In fact, someone in a cubicle with no direct reports can still be a leader for one simple reason: Leadership is about being able to influence others.
“Leading up” (or “managing up”) allows anyone to positively influence the boss, or even the boss’s boss. Often when direct reports see their boss doing something questionable or that doesn’t appear to make sense, they just assume the boss has thought it through. However, the truth is, they may be unaware of the real implications.
Let’s take two recent examples from the news. While we don’t know the particulars, we can imagine that if someone on Hillary Clinton’s staff noticed her using her private email for official State Department correspondence, that person could have “managed up” by respectfully bringing the potential implications to her attention. Similarly, NBC News anchor Brian Williams, who was suspended after questions about his reporting surfaced, might have been approached by a member of the crew who recalled, for example, that he was not in the helicopter that was fired upon in Iraq as he said, but in another helicopter.
In hindsight, it may seem obvious or easy to “lead up” when all the facts are known. But in the moment, it takes clarity and courage to bring a problem or conflict of interest to the boss’s attention. I believe the only way to take such action is by being a values-based leader.
I have embraced values-based leadership from my days “in the cube” (as I called my cubicle) to becoming CEO of a $12 billion healthcare company and now as a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. I define values-based leadership using four principles: self-reflection, which heightens self-awareness; balance, to see all sides of an issue; true self-confidence, to know who you are, your skills, and accomplishments; and genuine humility, to show respect for everyone. Using these four principles you become your “best self,” which allows you to start by leading yourself to do the right thing.
From here, you can positively influence others. With direct reports and team mates, it’s fairly straightforward. It’s trickier, but not impossible, when you attempt to influence your boss.
First, your boss doesn’t operate from a values-based perspective because she wasn’t raised that way or her prior experiences weren’t grounded in values. Or maybe she’s just unaware. When she asks you to do something that conflicts with your values (perhaps not blatantly unethical, but a gray area), you respectfully explain why her approach is inappropriate. As you present your argument, you stand a good chance of convincing your boss to see things in a different light.
The second situation is more challenging: Your boss doesn’t get it—and doesn’t want to get it. All he cares about is the final result. Your only chance here is to go to your boss’s boss. Before taking that step, you need to self-reflect: Are you convinced that your boss is going in the wrong direction, or are you ego-invested? If you remain convinced that it’s the right thing to do, you have no choice but to speak up.
Early in my career I was asked to analyze a potential acquisition and concluded it was worth $70 million. Later, after submitting my report, I learned that the company was going ahead with the acquisition and would pay $100 million. When I told my boss that price was too high, he told me the decision was already made. After self-reflecting and gathering more input, I had the true self-confidence to approach the CEO in the company cafeteria and explain my rationale to him. My boss and I were invited to a meeting to explain my analysis, after which senior leaders concluded that $100 million was too much to pay, and the acquisition didn’t happen.
In this example, my speaking up was prompted by the need to be a good steward of shareholder resources. Someone else may face a serious ethical problem in which their boss is not going to do the right thing. To avoid violating your values (or even breaking the law) you have to escalate the issue to your boss’s boss. In the worst case, he has no interest in doing the right thing and you get fired. But in that situation you wouldn’t want to stay at the company anyway!
However, in an ethical organization, you’ll have a good chance of convincing your boss’s boss. And, if your boss is also present at the meeting for an open discussion, there will be no question about what was said or decided.
Leading up isn’t about being right—it’s about doing the right thing. By knowing what you stand for and acting as your best self, you can positively influence others and in the end, achieve optimal outcomes for everyone involved.