Leading upwards with these 6 brilliant tips

Leading upwards with these 6 brilliant tips

4 min read

By Stuart Robinson


In today’s megatrend towards empowering teams, hot-desking, open workspaces, and distributed leadership the antiquated thought of leading upwards can sound a little…antiquated. Surely hierarchical thinking has left the building and the adults are now playing with far more sophisticated toys?

Maybe !?!

Or, maybe leading upwards has captured your thought processes because your leader is not as super-efficient, highly-competent, or a paragon of decision-making as you first assumed. Let’s face it, all leaders aren’t brilliant and some need more time than others to find their mojo. Unfortunately, that leaves you in an unwarranted predicament wondering whether it’s worth trying to lead upwards, or scan Seek for another opportunity.

Before you do, take a look at these 6 simple tips to be brilliant when your boss isn’t.

#1 - be humble

Consider your own receptivity when offered direction from someone lower down the food chain. You wouldn’t be the first to gather your thoughts, reject the ego tendencies, and position yourself to be led. While it may seem a little obvious your leader will require the same space, if not more.

Approaching a leadership moment with humility shows your adept EQ and increases the odds that you, your message, and your direction will be accepted. As a result, being humble transcends professional boundaries and permits your boss to be teachable, reminding her that you are a trustworthy team-player. 

Just remember, the optics of being humble will always appear transparent against authentic humility.- 

#2 - be confident

It’s an easy mistake to confuse humility with weakness. In this scenario, confidence becomes the undesirable trait and those who are often risk or conflict averse tend to prefer humility than being bold and courageous. Therefore, confidence is the antithesis to this and leading upwards requires it in spades.

The best image I’ve ever been given to describe this dichotomy is the picture of a horse’s bridle. In between its mouth, attached to the bridle, lies a bit. This bit when directed from the reins steers the horse in the desired direction. Yet the horse has far more power than the bit, but chooses to remain meek. In conclusion, this meekness symbolises how it is to contain both confidence and humility at the same time.

When directing your leader she will need to know that you are confident in the direction you are taking her. She may question it – as she should – but she shouldn’t have room to query your doubts. 

#3 - know your stuff

When you lead upwards by offering your perspective and all you can hear are crickets, for your sake let’s hope they’re chirping because the audience is dumbfounded – not that they’ve found dumb! It has often been stated that it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove and all doubt.

Verbal processing may seem pithy and humorous on Big Brother, but professional leadership demands well-considered ideas and opinions. They don’t always have to be right, but they should express a level of deep thinking to posture them. This deep thinking requires:

  •  Research – find journal articles that provide some perspective or research findings and results.
  • Additional opinions – discuss your ideas with your coach, mentor, or trusted peer.
  • Weigh up disparate options – don’t rush a decision but carefully consider the pros and cons of sharing your perspective.

#4 - hold ideas loosely

After all your well-considered research and perspective fact-finding it’s possible that your ideas are not going to be accepted. 

That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a good idea or your leadership faculties are now in jeopardy. Chalk it up as a learning experience.

#5 - perfect timing

Timing is mission-critical. As a prelude to this point, professional leaders aren’t usually defined by timing. However, as human beings we are all susceptible to issues that pervade our workspace and professional lives. Good leaders can remain professional through most incidents and it’s rare – certainly these days – that a leader will be defined by chaotic mood-swings. 

With that in mind, pitching your leadership wisdom upline is very much reliant on the perfect delivery time. Some aspirational leaders may shy away from leading upwards with their managers in times of crisis because the context has changed from its normal pace. Not all leaders perform well in these environments so any upward leadership may have been a God-send at this point. On the flip-side, the opposite could be true. Picking the right time to lead upwards is crucial and your discernment to do so will stand you in good stead. 

#6 - don't sweat misplaced kudos

After all your wonderful effort, it’s gut-wrenching when your boss decides to enjoy the glory without passing credit in your direction. This can often be one of those existentially critical moments in your leadership journey. 

Any worthwhile leader understands that credit should always be passed on to those who deserve it. Your glory-driven leader, with a lust for personal gratification, may enjoy the limelight temporarily but their motivation is overtly transparent and noted by others.

The credit you deserve for leading upwards may not have been publicly pronounced, but to those that matter they have already noted your genius and will be looking for ways to include you in their future projects.


Stuart Robinson

Stuart Robinson

Stuart Robinson: MBA, 25+ years in school management. Business degree, AICD graduate. Founder and author sharing expertise in educational leadership, strategy, and financial management.


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