As one of the region’s top providers of leadership development programs for working professionals, we are regularly asked about leading up. What are the best ways to persuade those above me in organizational hierarchies? What can I do to engage people when I don’t have my hands on the levers of power and incentives?
Fundamentally, the driving principle for leading up is this: When we talk about leading up, we’re really talking about influence. Not power. Creating a reason for someone to believe in your idea, your vision and your capabilities to make something happen.
For more than 100 years, the Daniels College of Business has worked with countless young and seasoned business professionals. What we’ve learned from them can’t be quantified. We’ve also seen tremendous shifts and innovation in thought leadership over the years. From Stogdill to Sinek, sometimes it feels like we’ve dealt with it all.
What we’ve learned is that all this change is really just a repacking of older studies, which is great: We need new ways to frame old models in our changing times.
Take the classic model, The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership by Kouzes and Posner. If you’re familiar with it, you might roll your eyes right about now and think, “What could a concept first published in 1987 have to do with my world in 2017?”
Well, when it comes to leading up, everything. Let us make our case.
First, the starting place of Five Practices is the starting place of those looking to influence people over whom they have no power. It’s about action and behavior, not attitude and personality. The authors studied thousands of leaders and their stories of times when they were at their best. They wanted to know what these leaders did to engage and move people to action.
When it comes to leading up, our bosses are much more inclined to watch our behavior than our personality to determine if they should believe in us. In their book, “Influence Without Authority,” authors Allan Cohen and David Bradford outline a very practical set of tactics to drive change with your boss, underpinned by the fact that actions, not ideas, will get you the cooperation you need. You need to exchange something, build relationships—and act and behave in a way that makes your boss’ shoulders lighter.
Intuitively this makes sense: When you are in a position of power, words and ideas may carry some weight. But when you can’t demand action by way of power, you have to prove your ideas through action.
The Five Practices model is all about our actions: Behaving in a way that encourages others to engage with our ideas and to help us move ideas and change forward. The practices, and the common threads of behavior Kouzes and Posner found in their study of thousands of leadership stories, are:
- Model the Way: Set the example for others to follow. Walk the talk.
- Inspire a Shared Vision: Create an ideal and unique image of what can be. (Note: The opposite of this is not Share an Inspired Vision.)
- Challenge the Process: Look for innovative ways to improve things, experiment and take risks, and accept inevitable failures as opportunities to learn.
- Enable Others to Act: Create an environment of trust and dignity by strengthening others so they feel powerful themselves.
- Encourage the Heart: Recognize the contributions that people make and share the rewards. Make people feel like heroes.
Take a step back and look at this list. What do these practices have in common?
Anyone can do them. From anywhere within the organization. These stories may be from leaders with a certain degree of authority, but really, what they expose is an uncomfortable truth about leadership: Leaders actually have no power. All the power lies with the people they’re encouraging to get on board.
Think about it. Today, you could influence anyone within your organization by:
- Acting in a way that is consistent with the change you wish to see. Do you think your boss needs to micromanage less? Manage your team the way you want to be managed and demonstrate how much more effective it can be. Model the way.
- Switching your idea-sharing from “here’s a great idea” to “here’s what my great idea means for you.” Do you think a better Customer Relationship Management system could make you more effective at your job? Think beyond that and illustrate how it makes your boss’ life better. Inspire a Shared Vision.
- Taking opportunities in meetings to give kudos to others, maybe even your boss. Celebrate wins as a team, and step back from your inherent desire to self-promote. Encourage the heart.
Five Practices is a leadership model that has stood the test of time and then some. When it comes to leading up, there’s hardly a more relevant model to influence those in any position within any organization.
The Executive Education department at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business uses The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership and many more models—including its own—in three different leadership programs designed for aspiring, emerging and executive leaders of all stripes. Learn more at daniels.du.edu/execed.