Lead Your Leader


Leading your leader is not part of the job description.

When you became a VP, you were not expecting to lead your President. If you are a CEO, the board is there to give you direction, right? Not the other way around.

But here’s the reality:

Great leadership engages the people below, to the side, AND up.
But, we don’t always talk about the ‘up’…and we should.

Recently, our team led an offsite with a company who, like many others right now, were figuring out how to ‘do more with less’ (you can read more about this topic in a previous blog, here).

During one of the breaks, a leader I had coached previously pulled me aside and raised the topic of ‘leading up’. Since this leader’s leader, the CEO, happened to be standing nearby, I brought them together and asked: “What percentage of a leader’s job involves leading up?” The CEO replied, “I would say around 50%.”

50% – A considerable percentage, and also, an invitation.

I define ‘leading up’ as proactively engaging with those who lead you. What ideas are you contributing? What risks or opportunities do you see at your position of leadership that those above you might not see? Where might your leader have some blind spots?

The thought of leading up doesn’t feel comfortable for many leaders. As a leadership coach, I frequently witness some version of the following autopilot cycle from leaders who don’t lead up:

Waiting → Assuming → Complaining → Avoiding

Waiting: My boss needs to reach out to me. They’ll reach out to me when they’re ready. Why aren’t they reaching out to me?

Assuming: They’re not interested in my problem. They don’t have time for me. Maybe they’re avoiding me? I don’t think they want to hear my thoughts or solutions.

Complaining: They don’t give clear direction. They keep changing direction. They don’t tell me what they want from me. They don’t care about their people.

Avoiding: I’m just going to keep my head down and focus on what’s in front of me. I’m going to do my work and keep my mouth shut. I’ll stay close to those I can trust and avoid those I can’t.

Does this cycle sound familiar to you? Consider this more creative cycle for leading up:

Acting → Asking → Sharing → Inviting

ACT, rather than Wait.
I’m going to reach out and ask for some time to talk with my supervisor.

ASK, rather than Assume.
I’m going to ask clarifying questions to better understand their perspective. I’m going to ask how I can be more helpful in my communication with them.

SHARE, rather than Complain.
I’m going to share what I am observing that might be of interest to them. I’m going to offer an idea about how our company could do things better.

INVITE, rather than Avoid.
I’ll invite my leader to drop in for my team’s meeting next week.

What cycle do YOU want to be in?

Stop avoiding your leader, and instead take the challenge of engaging and inviting them into a conversation. Leading up is an important part of leading well.

Leading your leader can be challenging. If your company is looking to develop a leadership team proficient in leading down, sideways, AND up, give us a call. We’d love to help your company create a 360-degree presence in its leadership.