Leading Up

by Mark Hennes | Mar 05, 2018

Quote of Note
"One of the sad truths about leadership is that, the higher up the ladder you travel, the less you know."
- Margaret Heffernan

One of my very first jobs in the Army was as an ammunition platoon leader. As a 22 year old, less than a year out of West Point, I found myself responsible for the entire ammunition resupply effort of an artillery battalion located in South Korea. Because of the nature of the unresolved Korean War, we had been issued our full stock of ammunition that we were projected to need in the early stage of a war with the North. To speed our responsiveness, we had all of this ammunition loaded on trucks that could easily accompany the unit as we rolled out.

To ensure the accountability and serviceability of the ammunition, I had a rotating cycle of inventories and inspections. I would then present the results of these for review and signature by my boss. On one of these cycles, I presented a stack of paperwork for my new boss’ signature. He had been on the job less than a week and had little time to transition with his predecessor, but it was his job to review my findings. He flipped through the first few pages and then looked up to me saying, “you obviously think that I know what I’m doing here.”

This was my first experience at feeling responsible for the education and success of my boss. We often think of it the other way --- that leaders are responsible for the success of the led, but I think that leaders have a similar upward responsibility. We all work for someone, and helping them be better leaders improves our work and the success of the organization. Indeed, their success and performance is a reflection of our success and performance.

As educators, it’s not uncommon to have new principals or superintendents. If this job is their first time at this new level, and especially if they are new to the building or district, then they are going to have some blindspots. Here are some techniques for you to help them succeed by leading up:

Open Communication – If you suspect a blindspot in your boss, then make the first move. He may not be comfortable with admitting a weakness, so offer an opening for him in a non-threatening way. Offer to him: “have you seen this before?” “Did you have this in your last job?” “Can I show you how we use this here?” Demonstrate a leadership trait of giving credit to others by saying, “Jean had a great idea about how to do this, can I show you her thinking?”

Confidentiality – Bosses who open up to learning from their subordinates may not want this to be broadcast widely. So, do not spread through office gossip that you had to show the boss how to do a task. Confident leaders who are comfortable with admitting that they don’t know everything will let it be known that they are open to learning from their team.

Practice Your Listening Skills – While some bosses may be upfront about needing help, many will not be so forthcoming. They will, however, still send out signals. Be alert for the boss disconnecting during similar discussions or changing the subject when certain topics come up in meetings. Does she never want to visit certain classrooms or visit at certain times during the day? Does he ask questions that show little depth of knowledge on the topic? These are all subtle signals from the boss that there are some gaps in his/her experience or knowledge.

Beware Off-Loading – Is this really the boss’ shortcoming, or are you not taking responsibility for something that is really your responsibility? “Hey, Dr. Smith, morale is really low in my building. It’s your fault and here’s what you need to do about it” is not a very constructive and open approach. Plus, it basically just dumps your leadership problem onto your boss. As an alternative, consider, “Dr. Smith, I’ve been working to improve morale in my building, and I’d like to involve you in this aspect …” She may have been aware of the problem but was struggling with coming up with a solution, so she might welcome your suggestion and guidance.

Beware Leading Up Too Much – As I said, not all problems are your boss’. Your job is to lead, develop, manage, and coach your team. Only a few problems are really ones that involve your boss. Additionally, you don’t want to unnecessarily create problems with your colleagues by appearing to be the “chosen one” or are too close to your boss.

Remember, your boss’ performance is a reflection of your performance, too. So add some “leading up” to your overall leadership repertoire.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CAIU, its directors, or its staff.