Ep 104: Leading Up

Although leadership is usually discussed in theory as one of the main elements that drive team building, reality still paints it as part of a rigid hierarchal model. Thus, most people refuse to start leading up since it results in a negative connotation rooted in overpowering the people above them. Adam Quiney aims to break this stigma by discussing how one should act when leaders go against their beliefs or expectations. He discusses three challenging scenarios a lot of people usually experience with leadership, as well as how to address each one where growth and understanding on both sides can bloom. He also explains the right way to lead downwards, underlining one important fact about managing a team: inspiration over control.

Listen to the Episode Here:

Leading Up

Here we are having conversations that cause leadership. It’s a distinction that I want to bring in right at the top of our conversation, which is this distinction between a conversation about leadership and a conversation that either is leadership or causes leadership. They’re the same thing. Anytime you’re in a conversation that is leadership, it’s going to cause more leadership. That’s the nature of leadership as it develops further leadership, the being of a leader in those around you. Most of the world is engaged in conversations about leadership. Those are conversations pointing to other leaders and talking about what they should do, “Here’s what Donald Trump should be doing.” “Here’s what Justin Trudeau should be doing.” “Here’s what Boris, I don’t know his last name, should be doing.” I only know North American world leaders.

We have books that tell you about leadership. The vast majority of books that you can read on the subject of leadership are books that tell you about leadership. They describe the process of leadership. They do not cause your leadership at the moment. Reading the book does not create you as more of a leader. All it does is give you more information about leadership. In essence, it’s giving you informational mastery as opposed to ontological mastery. It’s like the difference between reading about riding a bike and riding a bike. We’re trying to have conversations here that cause your leadership or that support you in causing leadership that gets you into that role, that position, that mastery of riding a bike, as opposed to having more information about how one would ride a bike.

Having said all of that, what we’re talking about is leading up. Have you ever thought to yourself perhaps while reading this, “If only the lunkhead leading me were to read this or attend this seminar, things would be better? I wish my boss would lead like this.” You are not alone if you have felt that way and this is one of the most common places where we abdicate our own leadership. It’s one of the most important places to practice being a leader for exactly that reason. Where people back away, pull away, give away their leadership, where people stop being leaders wherever we see that happening the most, that also represents the places where you can have the biggest impact because there’s a dearth of leadership in those places. One of those places where we see this so common is when we are being led poorly and we are unwilling to lead up.

It’s essential. If you want to be a leader, you will need to be able to lead both up and down. What we’re going to be talking about is who grants you your leadership, why is it so important for you to be able to lead up as well as down, what happens when you don’t and how to practice? Who grants for your leadership? Let’s start with this. Why is it counterintuitive? Why is it a challenge to lead up? First, it’s a challenge and it’s counterintuitive because of the way we collectively tend to relate to leadership.

Deepening your leadership skills means stepping beyond your current capacity. Share on X

Our society does not tend to relate leadership to the being of a leader as a quality of being. It tends to relate to it as a position in a hierarchy so the people above you, lead you. They are leaders to you or at you. The people below you are led by you. What makes you someone above you in the hierarchy is their position on the org chart. If you’re going to be practicing leading up, down, laterally, and sideways on that chart, you’re going to be up against the beliefs of the collective of the world around you, as well as quite likely your own beliefs because our beliefs tend to be hinged by collective beliefs. This will create a bit of an inertia like a current in the water that you’re swimming against whenever you’re in the contemplation of leading up and whenever you’d even think about it.

We often get a little kerfuffled with the idea of leading up, because we think that what that means is doing stuff, telling our boss what to do, going over our boss’s head, arguing with them, pointing out their flaws, giving them feedback, giving them a performance review, etc. We probably think those things because that’s what we see modeled. That’s what leadership is. That’s the story. It’s not the truth. Because of all this, it becomes a lot easier to simply resign ourselves to having to deal with bad leadership.

We go, “I have this crappy boss so I’m going to have to go around them. I’m going to have to manage them. I’m going to have to minimize their impact on my life,” which is us abdicating from our leadership. Who grants you your leadership? Your leadership is granted by two people. First, by those that lead you. These are the people above you who make decisions to charge you with specific projects, goals and outcomes and hopefully, to support you in deepening your leadership as you take those things on. These are the people that will support you in expanding your capacity as a leader. This is by definition what deepening your leadership is. It’s the practice of stepping beyond your current capacity like going to the gym and lifting weights.

If you’re never pushing past your capacity, if you’re always operating in the realm of what you know how to do and what you can handle without feeling overwhelmed, you’re probably not growing. The benefit of having people above you that can support you in this way is that they can help you distinguish between the discomfort that comes from pushing beyond your current capacity and the discomfort that comes from going to the gym and trying to lift a 500-pound weight when you’ve never exercised before.

GL 104 | Leading Up

Leading Up: If you’re never pushing past your capacity, you’re probably not growing.


That’s an important distinction and it’s something that’s hard for us to see ourselves without someone a little bit outside of our context. If we stay in the metaphor of the gym, you want to go and push yourself past your current capacity. That’s important. If you’re not doing that you’ll stay as you are, but we want to find the right gradient for pushing past your capacity. We don’t want you to lift a 500-pound weight when you’ve never lifted before. At this point, the correct capacity might be five pounds.

As humans as individuals, we tend to have a bit of a default. Each of us has our default, some people will veer towards staying way too close to what is comfortable for them so they’ll look for the 0.01-pound weight, “I’m going beyond my capacity. This is what I can handle.” Other people will look for the 5,000-pound weight, “I must increase my capacity and I must do it yesterday.” Neither of these is the gradient we’re aiming for so the people above you can support you in finding that balance. It’s going to be tough for you to do it for yourself because you have your own bias and you’re going to be in the water that you’re naturally swimming in.

Who Grants Leadership?

The second group of people that grants your leadership are those that you lead. Not surprisingly, people that have a poor relationship with the people above them also tend to struggle to have leadership bestowed upon them by the people that they are leading. What I mean by this is you cannot lead someone without their willingness. In the corporate world, we attempt to create this willingness using money, a position in the org chart, the threat of firing, and using hierarchy but those things are temporary and they don’t provide long term acceptance of your leadership.

In fact, they don’t provide acceptance of your leadership at all. What they do is they create in people the willingness to do whatever they have to do to get their paycheck, which is a lot different than empowering someone’s leadership. If you want me to relate to you as a leader and to bestow leadership upon you, which is to say to allow you to lead me, but you’re doing it by using a third of your paycheck, I will do only what is necessary, in order to keep that paycheck. I will not trust you. I will not be open to you. I will not bring you my intimacy or my vulnerability. I will not let you hold me to step beyond my capacity. I’m not going to trust you.

You cannot lead someone without their willingness. Share on X

As a leader, we have to constantly and continually enroll people in relating to us as a leader, trusting us and in bestowing leadership upon us. This sounds weird, especially when we think of it from the direction of the people below you, “They’re below me. I’ll fire them. They don’t have a choice.” That is the danger. That is one of the places that modern leadership gets stuck. It’s insisting people don’t have a choice and what you’ll find is that people will physically do what you need them to do but they will not choose leadership. They will not choose into that development in a powerful way and that’s on you because you have not enrolled them.

When you have neglected to do this, you end up being left with direct reports that don’t trust you, and when they don’t trust you and your leadership, it’s going to be challenging for them to have you invite them outside of their capacity. You can think of it like at the gym. I have to be enrolled in the possibility that’s available and pushing past my capacity. Maybe I have a trainer who will go with these weird metaphors I’m creating screams at me. It’s not even nice. It’s yelling at me. I’ll do whatever I need to do to get that guy to stop yelling at me, but I’m not going to fully empower the experience of pushing beyond my capacity. I’m going to be limited in how I show up.

The Ability To Lead Up 

Why does this matter as a leader? First, let’s talk about why you need to lead up. Without the ability to lead up, you’ll find yourself able to be a great leader to those around you up to a point. The light that you shine will cease to have an impact anywhere above you inside whatever particular hierarchy you find yourself in. There’ll be this light casting light downwards, hopefully, on the people below you that you’re leading but nothing above. Your leadership stops there. That is where you can no longer create more leaders. Rather than take this as an opportunity to deepen your leadership of, “I’m struggling with this, boss. How do I be more of a leader at this moment?”

Instead, the tendency is to turn towards blaming the leader above us, throwing our hands up, and insisting it’s not our fault. “If only they would listen to our podcast, maybe I’ll spam their email with it. I’ll sign them up for Adam’s mailing list,” which won’t work but you could try it anyhow. Leaders of this nature, where they tend to place blame up the ladder, often do so by complaining to their direct reports. They’ll create this collusion, “I’m so sorry that things went this way. It’s Jerko, who’s my boss. I would love things to go differently.” What we model is what we see people practicing so you’ll end up creating people that will do the same. At best, you get this loyal group of people that will honor you but complain about the leadership of those around them.

GL 104 | Leading Up

Leading Up: Modern leadership is usually stuck in insisting that people under them don’t have any choice on what they can and cannot do.


Bad news, that’s not leadership. You end up with people that can lead each other inside their group but will be rebellious and unwilling to grant leadership anywhere. Where you cannot grant leadership, you cannot have it granted back to you. If you’re thinking, “It’s not a big deal. My people grant me leadership. I’m not willing to be led myself.” That is having repercussions far beyond those that you can see. I would assert that’s a blind spot so you’re not going to be able to see much here.

Great leaders create leadership everywhere. They create leaders, not only out of the people directly below them but also from the people those direct reports lead, as well as the people above them. Great leaders cause leadership simply by virtue of the way they are being. What this means is that when we are being leaders with the people below us, above us, or the people lateral to us, we create more leadership simply by virtue of people being around that. You can think of it as a strong magnet. If I bring a piece of iron in the vicinity of that magnet, the magnet magnetizes that iron and you take that iron away and it has magnetic properties. That is what leadership is like. What do you do about this?

A Vague Boss 

Let’s look at a few common examples of how people commonly react to them and how you can be a leader about it. First one, your boss is vague and doesn’t provide you with clear direction. In this situation, most people will do their best to get frustrated with their boss, and they’ll simply decide an indirection themselves, “Screw it. I tried. I asked this person to give me a new direction. I’m going to choose one.” This steps over the issue and we usually do it because it’s easier, “I want to get my work done. I don’t want to spend more time talking up there.” What you do is now you’re managing around the hole that’s in the floor and that is not what a leader does. A leader addresses what’s in the space.

A leader is willing to stand for what they need because that ensures they can deliver what is being asked for. In these situations, what there is to do is to be willing to stand for your boss to give you something clear and concise that you can work with. This is not about making your boss wrong. It’s about being clear on what you require to do the job being asked of you. This will often require a willingness on your part to go past one and done saying the bold thing, asking for what you need, and rather than accepting what you got, ask yourself, “Is this helpful?” If not, you need to go back and stand for the importance of specificity again until you get it now.

Great leaders create leadership everywhere. Share on X

Your leader may get frustrated with you like anyone will get frustrated when you’re standing for what you need in the face of what they’ve learned to do. Your job is to not make it about them to not make it a personal thing. You don’t want to give them something to defend against. You want to be clear, “I’m not doing this because you’re doing something wrong. I’m doing it because I need this to do the job you want me to do.”

It can be helpful to work with your leader the same way you would work with your direct report, “It seems I’m having a hard time getting something specific out of you here. Do you want me to choose something? I can do that, but then you’ll need to be satisfied with what I provide. If it’s not okay, I’ll probably have to start over again. It might delay our project. I’m willing to do that. I want to make sure that that’s what you want. Alternatively, is there anything in the way of us getting specific together?”

A No Follow-Through Boss 

You’re not making that person wrong for how they’re showing up which if you remember, part of where we get stuck is complaining about our boss, which is what makes people wrong, which makes it hard to lead. It’s hard to develop leadership and be a leader in the face of making someone wrong. Stand for what you require. There’s another one, your boss doesn’t follow through on what they say they will do. What do you do if your boss doesn’t follow through? A common pattern here is that we relate to our bosses unreliable and we start managing around them.

In fact, when people think about leading up, usually they think that we’re talking about managing our superiors. It’s either deciding they’re this black box of unreliability so I’m going to bulwark that and I’m going to firewall around that and I’m going to do my best. I’m going to bypass them or ignore them. This isn’t your job. That is not good leadership, because again, you’re stepping over what is in the space. Your job is first to work yourself out. Get clean and complete. We’ve got episodes on that I can’t remember the number, but look up Complete. Search for Complete, get complete on how it’s gone and you want to share the impact with your boss.

GL 104 | Leading Up

Leading Up: A leader must be willing to stand for what they need because that ensures the delivery of what is being asked.


If you share this from them being wrong from a place of being incomplete about how it’s gone, you’re going to give them something to defend against. You want to get crystal clean, nice and squeaky clean on your side so you can then say, “I noticed you said you were going to provide me with this by Friday and I didn’t get it. It showed up on Tuesday. I’d like to share the impact of that so we both are clear on it and maybe we can have things go differently. Would that be okay?” When we’re leading up in these situations, your job is to be super squeaky clean.

People, in general, are going to be defensive anytime you’re reflecting an impact on them and from their defensiveness, they’re going to point back at you or do whatever. You need to be able to take responsibility for your side of how things went. If you want other people to be responsible for how things went, you have to model it. You need to be willing to get responsible, first and foremost, and own that with them, “Part of how this went I can see is I went over your head. I was relating to you as unreliable here and it’s not who I’m committed to relating to you as but that showed up and that had me hide this from you. I can see that it didn’t support what you and I are committed to creating together.”

Is there anything you can see there? We want to make sure we’re not adding anything else into the space based on our own energy, righteousness, or making them wrong. That gives them something to defend against. This is tough. We don’t like doing this. We want to be right and I want you to be wrong because you have to do the work and I don’t. That is abdicating leadership. There is always something for you to take responsibility for. Look on your side first.

A Micromanaging Boss

Third, your boss micromanages you. In these situations, what’s the impact of your boss micromanaging you? How can you see you may be responsible for creating this dynamic with your boss? A leader takes a look on their side, always, first and foremost. How are you creating the need for your boss to micromanage you? What can you see that is contributing to this? Are you hiding stuff from them? How is your communication? If you were the one leading, what might you be holding back or doing that has that person not able to trust you?

I’m not saying that everything you can see your boss doing is not valid. This is the trouble with this query that we’re in, this inquiry. You can probably see a bunch of stuff that your boss is doing and you’re probably right about a bunch of it. You’re wrong about a bunch of it too because you’ve got your own lens, but there’s a bunch that I guarantee you that you are right. The trouble is we point to what we’re about over there, rather than being willing to get humble and take a look on our side.

Every time you take responsibility for your side of things, it creates a clearing for other people to do the Share on X

You should take a look at how you’re creating micromanagement and once you can be responsible, you can share this with your boss and ask if they’re willing to take a look on their side to see what’s going on, “I notice it seems you’re often asking me to do things and taking the reins. I’m wondering how I am contributing to that? I got the sense you don’t want to be continuing to do that. If you do, that’s fine, but it leaves me feeling a little bit like, I don’t know. Do you need me to do this? Is my work even relevant? Am I doing a terrible job? I want to look on my side because I would love to shift that dynamic. My hunch is you would like to, as well.”

Once you’ve owned and been responsible for your own part in this, you can share with the leader how it’s affecting your ability to create what you’re committed to creating and doing so in partnership with them and as them as your leader. Every time you take responsibility for your side of things, it creates a clearing for other people to do the same. None of us want to do it, which is super understandable. In all of these situations, one of the keys is we want to move beyond the complaint to proposing something different and usually it’s in service to a partnership with our leader. When you notice that complaint, that’s your cue to get complete, “What do I need to forgive? What do I need to move past? What do I need to sit down and write out my emotions about first? I’ll take a look on my side and finally acknowledge my boss for how they’re showing up.”

What is there to do from there? What’s the conversation to bring from that point? What’s the possibility that you want to invite your leader into with you? What partnership would you like to create with them and what can you see for both of you in this rather than coming to your boss and be like, “I can see the possibility of you having more time.” You also want to include yourself in it. Rather than coming to their boss and being like, “I can see the possibility of me feeling so much more excited at work.” You want to include them in it so you want to share the possibility from a place of both of you. That’s how we enroll people in something.

Those are three short examples that provide a little bit of places where you can be in the practice of leading up. All that leading up is being a leader while in a relationship with those above you. It is no more complex than that. Everything that you’re putting in the way of that is simply a resistance to bring in the being of a leader. That complaint is a great way to resist the being of a leader. I’m not saying it’s not frustrating when we’re confronted by this stuff. Our work as leaders is often in the realms of that which is frustrating. What we have coming up for you are more examples of bad leadership and how to be a leader in the face of them.

We’ll go over some more examples that the audience of Get Lit has shared and what you might want to do with them. That’s all that we’ve got for you on this episode. I’m going to make a little plug here for The Forge. We have opened registration. The Forge is a ten-person group. It’s a nine-month program for coaches and leaders. It’s basically one long, big juicy, potent conversation that causes your leadership. Coming into The Forge, you will not leave the same person that you came in as. That is the promise. We commit and create transformation. It’s an $8,000 registration and if you’d like to read more about it, you can go to EverGrowthCoaching.com/The-Forge. I hope you enjoyed this episode. We’ll see you in the next episode.


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