How to Lead Leaders When You Aren’t the Leader

Lead UpI recently sent a poll out to my readers. In it, I asked their #1 most difficult leadership challenge.

The second most frequently cited issue could be framed as, “How do I lead up?”

The most frequently cited issue had to do with building team alignment. I’ll be releasing a unique opportunity on that topic very soon. Stay tuned!

Back to topic:  Bob Dylan observed, we all “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

It doesn’t matter where you are at in your organization, you answer to someone. And at some point, you may find that you want to influence a decision that person is making. Perhaps along the lines of encouraging them to:

  • Consider a new idea.
  • Make a needed change.
  • Stop an unhelpful practice.
  • Move more quickly.
  • Move less quickly.

The question of leading up was asked by a range of people. From front-line to CEOs. It might seem obvious how front-line supervisors or middle-management need to lead up. However, many people forget that CEO’s often report to boards or parent companies. Ultimately, they all answer to customers.

We all “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

What do you do when you need lead this same person?

Four Tips for Successfully Leading Up

As a coach and consultant, I am a professional “leader upper.” I don’t have a single consulting relationship that doesn’t have this dynamic in it. Sometimes I benefit from the magic of being the “expert” or the “outside person.” My suggestions and observations can take on a unique level of influence not offered to others. That’s when leading up is easy.

But much of the time, it isn’t that easy. While it’s been rare, I have been yelled at, fired, ignored or insulted by clients. Actually, the ignoring or avoidance is what most usually happens when clients act badly.

Typically, what provokes those responses is when I start putting my finger on something that really needs to change. For some people, that button is pretty sensitive.

I could start to get nervous about pressing that button. I could ignore the button. I could stop asking the questions that will reveal a button.

Or…I can work to develop the kind of relationships where I’m actually hired to find and push those buttons.

Here is what I do. It’ll work for you too…

1) Understand What They Really Want

At the very beginning of a relationship, I seek to understand the driving interests or desires of my clients. What do they really want?

The truth is, they often aren’t sure how to articulate that themselves.

The clearer I understand (and the more I can help them see) what it is they really want, the more I can help serve those interests.

Take the time to ask questions, to watch, to reflect, to listen to your leader(s) to understand what motivates or drives them. A few good questions for this include:

“What makes (a certain goal, project or solution) so important to you?”

“If X doesn’t happen, what will be the consequence?”

“What attracts you to X?”

How will X change things for you? How will it impact (your goals, business, etc?)

For example, I was once talking to a small business owner. He was very prepared. He had tried to anticipate all the questions I’d ask and had answers ready in his notebook.

I asked him what he wanted to accomplish. He quickly named a specific revenue goal he wanted to reach and the time frame for that goal.

Helpful information.

But not as helpful when I asked him, “What does that $ number mean to you?”

The information and emotion that came out from that simple question were very helpful. Now I knew where I needed to focus in serving him.

Like most people, very few leaders experience the feeling of being heard and understood. The better you get at that, the more likely you’ll get their ear.

2) Build Your Own Credibility

Be reliable. Be someone who can be counted on. Do what you say you will do. Be honest. Do good work. Take on challenges. Succeed at them. Own mistakes. Demonstrate that you will learn and grow.

Too often people demand credibility. “How dare you not think I’m amazing?!?!?” I know. I get it. I get frustrated that people don’t automatically see how awesome I am either.

But they usually don’t. So, I have to go ahead and just reliably do good work, act professionally and provide overwhelming value.

I do other things too. I’ve learned that how I dress, how I talk, how I casually relate to others impacts how I’m perceived.

Nearly all of my marketing is about establishing and building credibility. My goal is that by the time someone approaches me for my services, I’ve already “pre-earned” credibility. It’s part of why I write these articles, why I use testimonials, why I list past clients and places I’ve been published or quoted on my website.

I know that I’ll need to influence the people that hire me. I know that I might need to challenge them. To challenge closely held practices, behaviors, and mindsets. I’ll need credibility to do that.

You need to do this too. Learn what is viewed as “valuable” or “notable” by the leader(s) you want to influence. Do those things. Take those projects. Get those certifications.

Caveat: I never do things that require me to violate an ethical principle. I’m not a chameleon. I don’t just become whomever a client wants me to be. But I differentiate between my principles and my preferences. My principles are not yielded. My preferences may be.

3) Timing

Many attempts to influence fail because they were introduced at the wrong time. Like trying to plant seeds to early or too late in the season. Timing is important. A couple rules of thumb:

  • The more credibility you’ve earned the more “timing” can be flexible to accommodate you.
  • One idea at a time. While brainstorming is fun don’t turn it into a blizzard.
  • Provide input when asked. Not after plans have been committed. Not after agreements reached. Not after investments were made. I find many people get upset that they weren’t listened to – but they didn’t give input when they were asked. Don’t do that.
  • Novel or challenging ideas require more credibility than simple or practical ideas. So, you may need to invest more time and wait to introduce those ideas.
  • Sometimes a, “No” is a poorly framed, “Not now.” Go back and try again later.
  • Sometimes there is never a right time and you just need to make it happen it if is important enough.
  • 4:00 PM on Friday is a bad time for everything.

4) Framing Suggestions

There are a million ways to frame things better that are all situationally dependent. The point is that sometimes ideas are rejected because they were delivered poorly.

When this happens, it often isn’t the idea that is being rejected but the way it was presented. It is easy to confuse that. Make it easy for people to hear what you are saying.

  • Stay objective and future focused: Too often I’ve pointed out how another idea or project was poorly thought through or designed. Then I learn later that the person responsible was in the room. Or the person I was speaking to. Never helpful. Not even once.

In fact, when leading up, it is safe to assume that someone you are talking to has built or invested in maintaining “what is.” It is better to just stay focused on the future and not offer judgment or critique about the present or the past.

  • Speak from the perspective of Value isn’t always self-revealing. Sometimes it needs help. Describe how your suggestion:
    • Helps meet important objectives (business or personal).
    • Bring additional value.
    • Quantify what you can.
  • Be prepared to defend, explain or give a reason. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Make sure yours holds water.

Many leaders think critically. Many are fine with new ideas but not poorly explained or rationalized ones. However, many people offering ideas haven’t done their homework.

  • Accept their response. Try to understand their reasoning, if they offer it. You may need to go back and try again later. However, don’t give in to resentment, frustration, backbiting, gossip and all the other petty workplace politics that can happen.

Try to understand if your idea wasn’t accepted because of:

  • Insufficient credibility on your part.
  • Poor timing.
  • You over-personalized the conversation or concept.
  • Insufficient value (it didn’t exist or wasn’t communicated) in the idea to justify the risk, or effort of change.
  • There are other circumstances, that you weren’t/aren’t aware of that impact the feasibility of your idea.

However, even if you don’t know why your idea wasn’t accepted, keep cultivating credibility. Keep working to understand the leader’s interests.

You’ll have other opportunities to lead up.

Leading up is about influence.

As Stephen Covey has recommended, focus on what you can control and don’t worry about what you can’t. The more you focus on and succeed within your current sphere of influence, the more it will grow.

However, if you spend your time focusing on where you aren’t able to influence – you’ll find that whatever influence you have will shrink.

Leading up isn’t always easy. It isn’t guaranteed. But it is possible.

In fact, many leaders wish you were trying harder to lead up.

Take good care,


Last Chance Offer for Non-Profit Executives and Boards!

Through the month of July, I’m inviting proposals to receive free board training or strategic planning for a limited number of non-profit boards. This is only available to nonprofits with active boards and leadership who are doing cool stuff that I would like to be a part of.

This offer has been available all month and ends on June 31st.

If you are interested in details about criteria, how to apply, or what I think “cool stuff” is, or anything else, contact me at or 907 522-7200.









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