Leading Up

In order to lead, you must have followers.

But not all followers are subordinates.

“Leading up” is being responsible for working well with the people above you – your boss, a chief executive, a board of directors, and even members. It’s about deciding that you’ll take the initiative to be effective, whatever your current role. In many ways, we get the bosses we deserve. We are somewhat conditioned throughout our life to to be dependent on a generous, intelligent boss to give us the direction we need, recognize our great work and promote us. When that doesn’t happen, it’s easy to play the blame game and start pointing fingers at our boss, our co-workers, even our members. What we sometimes fail to consider is the power we have to influence those things (people) that are holding us back. Sometimes success happens despite (not because of) our leaders. When that happens, we are leading up. In this country, most of us have an astonishing amount of freedom, regardless of our role and whether we recognize it. Even those in an entry-level position generally have the freedom to call meetings, make phone calls and share ideas. We all have the freedom to put in a little extra or do only what’s expected. We have the freedom to make our current industry our lifelong career or move on to something else. And we have the freedom to decide how we will deal with the requests and requirements of those who have more power than we do. One option is to simply say, “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am”, perform to their expectations and maintain the status quo. Another option is to shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility for the success of the relationship, build a reputation and create an environment where your bosses actually become better leaders because of your influence.

“I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.” – Indira Gandhi

Leading up isn’t about brown nosing – it’s about doing what’s right for your organization. It’s about going one step further than only what’s expected. It’s about adding value. Ultimately, it’s about putting people first. After all, people listen more to what we have to say when they know we actually care about them and are interested in their general welfare. Our leaders are no exception.

Here are a few ways you can lead up, regardless of your current role:

  • Make everything you do intentional. Decide there is no such thing as a menial task.
  • Decide to become a master communicator. Learn to tell stories. Focus on improving your written skills. Improve your emotional IQ. Become a better listener.
  • Try to understand what is really important to your boss and do more of that
  • Adopt the attitude of a CEO, even if you’re in an entry-level position. This means looking for every opportunity to effect positive change, grow your organization and improve team performance.
  • Stop worrying so much about authority and demand responsibility.
  • Build credibility by being good at your job. Create a reputation for being the person who gets things done, and gets things done well.
  • Defer credit and embrace blame. In other words, be humble.
  • Define the small steps you can take to earn the right to be entrusted with bigger ones
  • Learn to recognize the times when you’ve hit the ceiling and it’s time to move on

The fact is, every organization can benefit from more upward leadership. Most of us, when we think about it, can identify an executive or director who might have been more effective had they been given more direction from a team of subordinates who took their responsibility to add significant value seriously. Which is really what ‘leading up’ is about – adding value. It’s about looking for where you can offer unexpected insight, take a project one step further, or help your boss communicate their vision and ideas more clearly. It means taking the initiative to lead, even when your role is to follow. When all of us recognize our responsibility to help those above, below and around us be more productive and effective, it’s good for our Credit Unions and good for us.

About Dan Finerty

Dan Finerty is the Director of Marketing at the Mountain West Credit Union Association, a Credit Union champion, a Credit Union Development Educator (CUDE), and an award-winning marketer. Dan has over 14 years of marketing experience in communications, retail, packaged goods, and, of course, Credit Unions. He believes that Credit Unions have an incredible story to tell and works with some of the brightest Credit Union professionals to help promote Credit Unions to the public. Dan holds two Bachelor’s of Science in Marketing and in Management. He is also a swell guy.

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