Trickle-Up Leadership

"If people are too intimidated or too reluctant to help their leaders lead, their leaders will fail," says Michael Useem, the author of a new book about how you can take control — even when you're not in command.

In a tough business climate — and even in boom times, for that matter — it's only natural to want to trust the people in the executive suite. After all, they know what they're doing, right? Not so fast, says Michael Useem in Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win, due out this month from Crown Business. Sometimes, even the people upstairs need help. "If people are afraid to help their leaders lead, their leaders will fail," says Useem, a professor of management at the Wharton School and the director of its Center for Leadership and Change Management. In an interview with Fast Company, Useem talked about how to take control even when you're not in command.

It's up to each of us to lead our leaders.

As technology evolves and organizations decentralize, people on the front lines have far more independence and responsibility. They are closer to the market and closer to how their product is used. They can see what their leaders are missing. When leaders falter, it's up to the rest of us to step up and help them lead. But leading up is not some noble calling: When you help those above you avoid a bad deal or seize an opportunity, you improve your whole organization's performance.

You've got to speak up to lead up.

In the Marines, the ultimate command-and-control institution, if their superior issues a flawed order, officers are expected to point out the flaws before that order goes into effect. That's the example set by Peter Pace, commander in chief at the U.S. Southern Command in Miami. A four-star general like Pace is an intimidating, big-deal guy. But Pace never ends a meeting without asking his subordinates to tell him what they each think. By challenging them to challenge him, Pace reinforces a culture where everyone is inspired to lead up.

Before you lead up, you've got to team up.

Leading up is riskier in down times. You get close to that CSM point — the Career Shortening Move — when you challenge a boss at a time when people are being laid off. David Pottruck, the number-two executive for Charles Schwab Corp., learned this the hard way. When he was president of Schwab's operating company, Pottruck frequently clashed with his boss, Larry Stupski, at top-management meetings. Whatever Stupski proposed, Pottruck tended to oppose. The result was that most of the other executives sided with Stupski, the senior of the two.

Pottruck made two big mistakes: He failed to recruit other people to his cause, and he disagreed disagreeably. He was arguing up instead of leading up, and he was almost forced out of the company. But then he met with Stupski and proposed a solution: He would never publicly argue with him again. He might disagree, but he would do so only in private. In the months that followed, Pottruck learned a critical lesson: By questioning his boss behind closed doors only, he got his ideas into the room and kept the power struggle out of it.

Try to be all things to everybody, and you'll be nothing to anybody.

Many of us report to more than one project leader, and that represents a difficult challenge: How do you meet the demands of multiple managers who often disagree with one another? General Pace reported to no fewer than six immediate superiors. His solution was to follow a policy of full disclosure. He informed each of his bosses of what he was recommending to the others — especially when he knew that one of those higher-ups would disagree with the recommendation. A case in point: when Wesley Clark, the European commander in chief, wanted U.S. Marine troops in the Balkans. Pace thought it was a bad idea. He was quick to tell Clark: "If you want them, they're yours. But when the Pentagon asks what I think, I'll oppose your plan for the following reasons."

That's a tough message to deliver. But Pace knew that by preemptively disclosing his disagreement with Clark, he was boosting his own credibility. His superiors could be confident that Pace would speak truth to power. Leaders don't have confidence in yes-men.

Which company has done the most to embrace the concept of upward leadership? The answer, says management professor Michael Useem, is General Electric. "GE has an extremely hard-hitting culture," says Useem. "But everyone is expected to challenge their leaders, even if it means challenging Jack Welch himself." To encourage its people to lead up, GE launched a program for mentoring up.

For many years, GE had required veteran leaders to mentor the next generation of top talent. But two years ago, when Welch realized that the Web would change everything, he asked 600 of his worldwide executives to reach down into the ranks and pick younger, Webified people to teach them the ways of the Net.

In his new book, Leading Up, Useem quotes Welch: "E-business knowledge is generally inversely proportional to both age and height in the organization." Mentoring up, Welch says, was intended to "change that equilibrium." Welch himself led the charge by picking Pam Wickham, who ran GE's main Web site, to be his Net coach.

The one-on-one sessions did more than give executives a crash course on the Web. They demonstrated that leadership is a two-way street: "Mid-level managers reported that they had become more comfortable in feeding ideas upstairs and pressing their bosses to change," writes Useem. "Top-level managers reported they had become more comfortable in eliciting insights from below." Bottom line: Reverse mentoring gets people to challenge their leaders — and it helps leaders do a better job of leading.

Contact Michael Useem by email (useem@wharton.upenn.edu).

Sidebar: Mentoring Up

Which company has done the most to embrace the concept of upward leadership? The answer, says management professor Michael Useem, is General Electric. "GE has an extremely hard-hitting culture," says Useem. "But everyone is expected to challenge their leaders, even if it means challenging Jack Welch himself." To encourage its people to lead up, GE launched a program for mentoring up.

For many years, GE had required veteran leaders to mentor the next generation of top talent. But two years ago, when Welch realized that the Web would change everything, he asked 600 of his worldwide executives to reach down into the ranks and pick younger, Webified people to teach them the ways of the Net.

In his new book, Leading Up, Useem quotes Welch: "E-business knowledge is generally inversely proportional to both age and height in the organization." Mentoring up, Welch says, was intended to "change that equilibrium." Welch himself led the charge by picking Pam Wickham, who ran GE's main Web site, to be his Net coach.

The one-on-one sessions did more than give executives a crash course on the Web. They demonstrated that leadership is a two-way street: "Mid-level managers reported that they had become more comfortable in feeding ideas upstairs and pressing their bosses to change," writes Useem. "Top-level managers reported they had become more comfortable in eliciting insights from below." Bottom line: Reverse mentoring gets people to challenge their leaders — and it helps leaders do a better job of leading.

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