Leading up – how to drive success from a non-leadership position

August 5, 2018 - Michał Dominik

Leading from below

When you have a problem to solve and you’re missing the necessary manpower, resources or information you reach out to your supervisors for help. But instead of delivering what’s missing they pepper you with ridiculous question. Other times they bring up a wall of reasons and excuses for why you won’t get what you need. I bet that after being treated like this for a while you can get pretty inventive with your invectives towards your leaders. Obviously, these situations can be extremely frustrating, counter-productive and thus harmful to any business. On top of that they can lead to animosities between people and create an “us-them” mentality. This in turn can force people to resign (talking from experience here). However, this doesn’t have to be so. We can make this work through a special form of leadership.

When we hear about leadership it’s usually of people leading their subordinates. But what is rarely mentioned is that special case I have in mind. I mean us leading our supervisors and showing them how and what to do for everyone to win. I find that this bottom-up flow of leading is as important as the traditional top-down pattern (if not more so) and probably the most difficult to learn.

Pictures from the battlefield

As implemented in our WARBAND workshops I find that combat or otherwise critical and immediate situations often illustrate these concepts best. It is because they are simple at the core, intuitive and leave no room for bullshit.

Imagine now that you’re a German commander operating in the harshest of winters in Soviet Russia. You are tasked with advancing your line but your men are still dressed in summer uniforms. However, from your perspective no advance is possible. The cold is unforgiving and your unit can barely hold the line as it is. Your situation is desperate an proper clothing for your men is absolutely necessary to at least prevent a disaster. You forward your dramatic situation to your HQ but your requests are being denied. This is because command bases its decision on weather forecasts, which state that winter should come later. It so happens that the temperature back at HQ isn’t as low so there seems to be no emergency. On top of that nobody wants to overload logistics with winter uniform transportation. As such your unit is forced to endure the horrible conditions and accomplish the impossible.

Let’s switch to the position of an American leader in the jungles of Vietnam (lookup Killing Zone: My Life In The Vietnam War for some excellent reading on this subject). Your objective is to conduct daily patrols in your area of operations. Initial intelligence reports stated that this region has little Viet Cong activity so you shouldn’t expect much resistance. However, as you begin your mission it quickly becomes apparent that these reports were inaccurate. The area is swarming with the enemy and you know that it’s a matter of time for you and your men to stumble into an ambush. One thing that could save your unit in such a situation is the rapid deployment of overwhelming firepower. Thus, you request aerial support for your region as attack planes and gunships turned the tables on many ambushes in the past. Unfortunately, HQ relies on the initial intelligence reports and evaluates the activity in your area as a diversion. To make matters worse your men find multiple weapon caches throughout the region indicating preparations for a major offensive. However, command seems unconvinced and you must steel yourself for the upcoming struggle.

Finally, and probably most depressingly consider yourself conducting counter insurgence operations in Iraq. The men under your command engaged in constant urban combat for months now. Your enemy are the religious fanatics and islamist warlords who up to now were terrorizing, torturing and committing despicable atrocities on the local populace unchallenged. Though progress was slow you were able to drive them from the area. Through sacrifice and risky but effective tactics your units were able to restore the lives of the people living in the region to as normal as possible under the circumstances. You’ve proven that this conflict is not hopeless and that through perseverance the threat of what later would become ISIS can be eliminated. However, this war is not popular in the public opinion and your achievements fall on deaf ears. Pressure mounting in the public sphere affects the politicians, who in turn urge the military command to hastily end all operations. With the enemy not fully defeated your initiative ends prematurely and you must leave your job half done. You must do this knowing that the consequences of this abandonment will be catastrophic in the future.

Back to business

I’m sure you get the picture by now. There’s an apparent adversity between different levels of leadership. If we want to be leading people in the bottom-up fashion we need to turn this adversarial relation around. Now, I do not posses the necessary levels of arrogance to go as far as to suggest how to solve such historical, dramatic  problems given above with hindsight. Instead, let’s return to the business environment. Here the stakes aren’t as high and our job should be considerably easier. So let’s get to it and get our bosses, and providers on our side.

No need for drama

First, let’s focus on the emotional part of the solution. The lizard in our brains is what usually messes things up at the very beginning so we need to get it under control. The emotional stimulus is that you can’t do the job you’re expected to through no fault of your own. To make matters worse the people who are supposed to be leading you seem to be doing a lousy job and are baffled by your resistance. All of this puts your job, reputation and those of your people at risk while endangering the business as a whole. On top of that, if you’re in a leadership role your subordinates may view you as inept. After all, it seems that you can’t get the job done and get them what they need to proceed.

The growing feeling of resentment, frustration, anger and hopelessness can become overwhelming at times. I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself at some point. Unfortunately, as is the case with emotions, they are infectious. Soon, your people will display the same demeanor and things will start to fall apart. At the end you’ll just end up with a bunch of lizards chasing their own tails and hissing at each other.

Tame the lizard

It is crucial to keep those emotions in check. Fortunately, there’s a very simple technique to do this, which I found effective. You need to ask yourself the following question: “Do my leaders want me to fail?”. Now, do not underestimate the power and depth of that short question. It forces us to get out of our heads for a minute look at the whole picture from different perspectives. It immediately prompts follow up questions such as: “what is expected of us”, “have we communicated our needs properly”, “are our requirements realistic” and so on.

So does the top want you to fail? Unless you’re in a toxic environment the answer is “no”. After all you should be sharing the same vision and strive towards the same goals. At the very least your managers want you to succeed so they can present themselves as successful leaders and get that bonus they’ve been chasing. Once you acknowledge this you can put all emotions aside and yourself at ease. With the confidence that all engaged parties are actually on the same side finding a solution is only a matter of time.

Tactful influence

With emotions checked we can proceed with applying our relentless logic to finding the solution. As the battlefield examples illustrate, the main source of the problems we face is that different people operate on different informational basis. It boils down to what is the intersection between the sets of knowledge and perspectives of various levels of leadership. The smaller the intersection the larger our problems become. As no one seems to be taking responsibility for this it becomes our job to make that overlap full.

So how do we this? By pushing situational awareness and influencing your leaders in a tactful manner. There’s very little chance that you’ll be invited to the upper echelons of commands for a private briefing with cocktails and all. That is why it is you who needs to take the initiative. Cocktails aside, we need to introduce our leaders to our perspective and our realities from their perspective. Makes sense? It’s an exercise in empathy. As we present our case we must do so while keeping in mind their point of view.

Specific solutions usually depend on the physical and cultural conditions of our work environment. For example, if your leaders are in a different country you probably have limited contact beside the standard calls and telecons. On that note, I believe that every interaction is always more meaningful face to face. So, start with a well composed message depicting your situation. Stress that the full scope of the case can be best presented in person and invite them to your workplace. Once you are in the same room have an informal sit down or a more formal presentation, depending on which is more suited to their character. When you have their attention lay out all that is necessary to make them understand your situation.

Be honest and specific and I can’t stress the latter enough because nobody likes whining. Specific issues give your leaders something they can act on. Throwing in numbers can help as it makes your case more professional and thought through. Through numbers you can add resilience to your statement so it won’t be dismissed easily. Remember to restate how your needs fit in with the common goals to remind everyone that you can see all that’s important. A note on whining here – if you present your case as ‘it’s all shit’ you won’t get any sympathy as you shouldn’t.

You may also all be in the same place as your higher echelons but the culture is such that there’s little contact between different levels of the company. Perhaps needless to mention but that’s insane. If you care even a bit about the company or your position in it you should feel obligated to change that. The drill is the same. Invite, talk, lay out the truth and get things done. You are the boots on the ground and it is your who are solving the problem.

Your leaders are people too. They have their needs, wants and preferences. There are areas where they will feel comfortable and more willing to listen to you. Use that to your advantage. If they enjoy a beer at a pub then take them out and present your ideas in a fun, non-invasive manner. Once they are relaxed go for it but take it easy. Use your intuition to navigate these situations but keep in mind the principles we’ve discussed.

Wrap up

As your efforts bring the desired effects be sure to follow up with a presentation or an email detailing what you’ve established. This reduces the risk of anyone ‘forgetting’ what was discussed and drives the point home. If you’ve done everything right by this point you should get the desired reaction or at least a promise of one. The thing about promises that I always repeat is that there is no ‘what’ without a ‘how’. Meaning, you need to be extra pushy for the detailed solution plan of what was promised. Otherwise, it’s just empty words and you’re right back where you started.

Does all of this feel uncomfortable? Damn right it does. What if your leaders are people you can’t stand. Most of us cringe when we think of leading people we have no sympathy for. That’s one the main reasons it is so difficult to put into practice. However, true leaders are above such trivialities and so should you. You do whatever you need to get the job done, unless you don’t care. But you do, right? You wouldn’t be reading this otherwise.

You can practice different forms of leadership and cooperation in our WARBAND team building workshop. Live examples with proper instruction in an exciting setting will let you master these skills in short order.

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I love working with like-minded professionals and add value to all parties. If you want to talk business do not hesitate to contact me. I operate in the Warsaw area.