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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Bucking the ride

Q: When Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a new immigration law making illegal residence a state offense in addition to a federal offense, she cited a lack of federal leadership on the issue. If you perceive upper-level leaders to be ineffective, when is it right to take bold action?

Going against your boss's wishes is a risky proposition. It may seem bold and brave, but it can also be naïve and foolhardy. Leadership by nature is a choice; we chose to bring others together for common cause. Leading up is even more person because it may involve rubbing up against the people who sign your paycheck. Therefore you must decide for yourself what to do.

Be aware first and foremost that as an employee you are hired to do a job. Your employer has the right to expect your compliance as well as your commitment. Short of moral transgression, you do what you are told to do. But if you are going to lead up - that is influence action from the middle -- here is what you must consider:

What can I do? Consider what you can do. Sometimes you can oppose those above you without drawing ire. You do it with the strength of your business case. You let the facts speak for themselves; you are seen as a recommender of a course of action rather than an insubordinate employee.

Who will follow me? Leaders need followers so if you are pushing for change, consider who will go along with you. First and foremost you need the support of your senior leaders, if not all of them then most of them. If this is not possible, then you are likely fighting impossible odds.

What are the risks of my actions? Leading up when you are going against the direction of your senior leaders is risky proposition. Senior executives do not like to be challenged, especially by those they outrank. Therefore, you could get bounced. At the same time, your fortitude may impress more senior people and they may want to keep you around. That sad to say is more the stuff of novels than reality.

What you do next is up to you. Most managers never try and lead up. They are content to maintain the status quo. Nothing wrong with this, but understand that if a situation with a superior becomes intolerable to you, then you owe it to yourself and your colleagues, to act. You can seek to change the situation from within, or you can seek to work elsewhere. Moaning and groaning about what should be is a refusal to face reality.

Lest we be too hard on those who choose to abide by the status quo, it is good to recall a story that historian Stephen Ambrose tells in his memoir To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian about working with Dwight Eisenhower on his biography. Eisenhower warned Ambrose to avoid speculating on another person's motivations. Those were known, Eisenhower argued, only to the man himself. The one person whose motives you should know best is your own. So when it comes to leading up and effecting change from the middle, do what you think is best for you and your team.

By John Baldoni

 |  April 29, 2010; 10:23 AM ET
Category:  Public policy Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The last I looked, the President is not the "boss" of the Govenor of any State. However acurate and helpful your comments might be in general, they don't apply to the Govenor's actions which was the context of the question.

Posted by: OldGeezer | April 29, 2010 1:53 PM
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Assuming that as an elected official Governor Brewer's actions reflect the will of the majority of people in Arizona, then she is, in fact, acting according to the demands of the people signing her paycheck.

The fields of government and business both revolve around meeting the needs of your constituents. In the case of government, ideally those are exclusively external (i.e. The People) whereas in business one's customers can be either outside the company or part of it. Good leaders keep the needs of their constituencies in the forefront of their motivation and action. When upper level leaders fail to consider your stakeholders, the onus is upon you to take up their case and do what is right for them.

Posted by: nkeitt | April 29, 2010 12:51 PM
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