How to Lead Up


Recently much talk about leadership has centered on the unhorsing of the boss figure by the leader figure. In simple terms, the sharp distinction between the two is that the former relies on a power structure, whereas the latter relies on a collaborative structure.

Much of the advice and conversation has emphasized the new role of the leader: what it should look like; how it should make team-members feel; what individual differences should be addressed first and foremost, and how. Most of these considerations are one-way and teamwork is a two-way street. So, it begs the question: what about the path from team-members to leaders?

These new leaders are working to change their ways in order to increase efficiency, job satisfaction, and productivity.

How then do team-members fit into and amplify that resolve?

Be Your Own Manager

The approach comes from John C. Maxwell's The 360 Degree Leader. He explains that each team-member's underlying strategy should be to support the leader. The best way to do that is to be attuned to oneself, and to manage oneself. That way, the leader can focus on overarching goals, tasks, and structures, while each team-member heads up their specific tasks that shore up larger efforts. In this way team-members relieve the leader of administrative tasks, allowing her to focus more on supporting the team's efforts.

What's more, doing this consistently will increase group harmony and nurture trust. When your team leader and team-members know that you can manage yourself, and that you have a track record of tangible success, they will grow to trust you. This is a conduit to greater responsibility and autonomy within the group. It's a process--a transformational process--but everyone learns along the way.

What's more, doing this consistently will increase group harmony and nurture trust. When your team leader and team-members know that you can manage yourself, and that you have a track record of tangible success, they will grow to trust you. This is a conduit to greater responsibility and autonomy within the group. It's a process--a transformational process--but everyone learns along the way.

What does manage yourself mean?

It means moderating and tending to your emotions, time, priorities, energy, thinking, words, and personal life. One or any combination of these factors when unmanaged can encumber upon the group dynamic. When you successfully manage them with temperance and conviction, you sustain the right environment for collective triumph.

In addition to those somewhat ambiguous admonishments, here are some more concrete ones:

Do your own job well first.

When you identify a problem, try to fix it. If you can't fix it or aren't allowed to, then bring it up to the person who can with solutions at hand. Sometimes that will mean railing against the status quo. So be it as long as your intention is the betterment of the team as a whole.

Successful people do things that unsuccessful people are unwilling to.

This is best typified as the "whatever-it-takes" attitude. It means not taking the easy way out, it means giving your all, it means saying the things that others don't want to hear, it means helping your team and its leaders acquire a new perspective so long as it comes from a place of enrichment. It means acting because it matters, not because it looks good or will get you a promotion.

When, how, and to what extent you pursue each of these imperatives depends on the collective heartbeat. You can tell. You can take the pulse of the group. Once you learn what makes the group tick, what its weaknesses and strengths are, what its priorities are, who its constituents are, that is when you can learn how to align yourself in a profitable and productive way.

Old Habits Die Hard, and How to Survive Them

True, many bosses are changing their approach to leadership and management, but equally true is that others are not. Some bosses are unwilling or constitutionally unable to change their ways. That puts you in a polarizing position to either adjust or escape.

For scenarios like this one, I like the lion tamer analogy developed by Steven L. Katz in Lion Taming. Some bosses are lions. They roar, bite, and attack unpredictably. You should be a lion tamer. It's one of the best skills to develop when you are in a lion's den.

The lion tamer is constantly looking for optimal ways to work with the lions. Lion tamers want to have proactive and productive relationships without compromising their own well-being. The lion tamer recognizes that the lions think differently than everyone else, so she gets into their heads. She understands what shapes the lion's perception of the world: in most cases, lions see you as either prey, an enemy, or ignorable. Prey, they eat; the enemy, they kill; and everyone else they disregard. What is left? Being on par with the lions without being a lion.

In essence, being a lion tamer means:

  • Strengthening your self-perception and self-image.
  • Playing a proactive, observant and strategic role instead of having to feel that you are in a subordinate or weaker position.
  • Recognizing who the lions are and what they want to be the lions of.
  • Trusting your own intuition and instincts while verifying what others see and experience in similar situations.
  • Observing more and reacting less.
  • Establishing your own presence, reputation and authenticity.
  • Deciding whom you want to work with or for, and why.

Many of these kernels of advice flow from the belief that you cannot be a lion tamer, you cannot be a vital team-member, you cannot support your leader and your team, if you do not recognize your own self-worth. When you do so, you remove psychological obstacles from your path and grant yourself permission to be, unapologetically.

Embrace Your Value and Harness It

You aren't a cog. You weren't born a cog. You can feel like a cog, and others can make you feel like a cog, but that doesn't mean you are one. You have skills, experiences, and knowledge that can make you indispensable to a group. Part of that has to do with the group dynamic, and part of that has to do with embracing your own value.

I don't mean for this to come off fanciful. I'm not espousing some unique snowflake rhetoric. What I am communicating is that each person, within reason, should recognize what they contribute to the team and see their value in that context. Otherwise, they risk being short-changed, exploited, or undervalued.

All things being equal, this self-evaluation should center on material outputs. No, I don't mean how much money you make (although that can factor in). I mean what you do. What you do may not generate the greatest amount of relative revenue, but that doesn't mean that it isn't an essential element in the functioning of the team.

Remember the point about context? Context influences how action is perceived, and it influences how you perceive yourself. A work environment where unquestioning rule following is the norm will penalize autonomy; whereas an environment where independence and innovation is the norm will denigrate a "follow the leader" attitude.

This is a dramatic shift from just a few years ago and it bears greatly on self-perception. At one point in time the American Dream included a directive to keep your head down, follow instructions, show up on time, work hard, suck it up, and wait to be rewarded.

The new American Dream looks a little like this. Be remarkable. Be generous. Create art. Make judgment calls. Connect people and ideas. And leaders will have no choice but to reward you.

You can't do any of those things though, if you don't reward and value yourself first.

Tune Into Your Presence

Your presence is the sum total of all these features. It's the confluence of your actions and contributions to the team, of your ability to grapple with lions, tigers, and bears, and your self-perception. When you have a positive outlook on these three features, backed by lived experience, you will have a powerful presence.

Granted, it is also the sum of countless features that inherently provide little value but superficially evoke respect, authority, or expertise. Things like where you went to school, how you look, how articulate you are, and what you claim to know. In today's conversation on leadership we are undercutting the primacy of those once-pivotal attributes, but that doesn't mean they don't hold sway. We all fall prey to the smoke and mirrors, and that's all right. The problem is when smoke and mirrors is all you have.

The oldest Dale Carnegie technique in the popularity manual applies here:

Show interest, ask questions, listen, engage, add value, be empathetic and, by all means, be yourself -- your amplified self.

Like it or not, people will judge you, so if you can influence their judgment to a large extent without driving yourself mad, do so. But let it be a result of your hard work, your social adeptness, and of your self-confidence.

About the Author
Anurag Harsh wears many hats. He is an entrepreneur, a public company executive, a digital guru, a blogger, a McGraw-Hill published author, an angel investor, and a classical musician who has performed two sold out solo concerts at Carnegie Hall. Follow him on Twitter.