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Leading Up: How to Influence Your Boss Towards Better Leadership

Leadership is widely regarded as a top-down process, with managers and supervisors guiding teams to achieve organizational goals. However, what happens when this leadership is lacking or inadequate? The concept of "leading up" addresses this challenge, empowering employees to influence and guide their supervisors towards more effective leadership. This article explores practical strategies for leading up to help you navigate situations where your supervisor is not leading effectively.

Understanding the Dynamics of Leading Up

For those in leadership roles, the concept of leading up can be particularly frustrating due to several reasons. First, it challenges the traditional power dynamics and may evoke feelings of insecurity or inadequacy. Many leaders have been trained to believe that they should inherently possess all the necessary skills and knowledge to guide their teams effectively. When subordinates start offering solutions or pointing out flaws, it can be perceived as a direct challenge to their authority and competence. This can lead to defensive behaviors, resistance to change, and even strained relationships within the team.

Leaders facing upward influence may feel overwhelmed by the dual responsibility of managing their usual tasks while simultaneously trying to improve their leadership approach based on feedback from their subordinates. This additional pressure can exacerbate stress and potentially lead to burnout, further impacting their ability to lead effectively.

FACT: "Leading up" involves proactively influencing your supervisor's decisions, behaviors, and perceptions to improve overall team performance and workplace culture. It requires a deep understanding of organizational dynamics, emotional intelligence, and strategic communication.

A study conducted by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) found that employees who engage in leading up enhance their influence within organizations and contribute to better decision-making processes (Gabarro & Kotter, 2005). However, leading up is no easy feat; it requires tact, diplomacy, and a deep understanding of one’s own limitations and those of the supervisor.

Identifying the Problem

Before attempting to lead up, it’s crucial to recognize the signs of poor leadership. Common indicators include:

Lack of Clear Vision: The supervisor fails to provide clear goals or a strategic direction.

Communication Breakdown: There is inadequate or ineffective communication within the team.

Micromanagement or Absenteeism: The supervisor either overly controls minor details or is often unavailable.

Low Morale: Team members show signs of disengagement or dissatisfaction.


Practical Strategies for Leading Up

To successfully lead up, employees can adopt the following strategies:

Understand Your Supervisor's Pressures and Objectives

To effectively lead up, it is crucial to have a deep understanding of your supervisor’s pressures, goals, and priorities. Start by observing their daily challenges and responsibilities. Engage in conversations where you can empathetically inquire about their objectives and the obstacles they face. This knowledge allows you to tailor your suggestions and feedback in a way that aligns with their agenda.

Consider using language that resonates with their goals, such as highlighting how your ideas can help meet key performance indicators or alleviate specific pain points they are experiencing. A study by Ashford and DeRue (2012) found that aligning your initiatives with your supervisor’s priorities increases their willingness to consider your input, thereby fostering a more collaborative environment.

Enhance Your Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EQ) plays a pivotal role in leading up effectively. High EQ enables you to navigate complex interpersonal dynamics and build strong, trust-based relationships with your supervisor. Focus on developing skills such as active listening, empathy, and self-regulation. Practice remaining calm and composed during challenging conversations, which can help prevent escalating tensions and foster a more constructive dialogue.

Additionally, building rapport through genuine, empathetic interactions can make your supervisor more receptive to your feedback and suggestions. Research by Goleman (1995) highlights that emotionally intelligent employees are better equipped to influence and persuade others, making it easier to lead up and effect positive change within the organization.

Master the Art of Persuasive Communication

Effective communication is vital when leading up. To persuade your supervisor, ensure your ideas are presented clearly, concisely, and backed by solid evidence. Structure your proposals logically, beginning with a clear problem statement followed by data-driven analysis and actionable solutions. Utilize storytelling techniques to make your points more relatable and compelling.

Anticipate potential objections and prepare counterarguments to address them proactively. Practicing these skills can make your suggestions more credible and easier for your supervisor to implement. The ability to communicate persuasively not only enhances your influence but also demonstrates your commitment to the team's success, increasing your supervisor’s trust and buy-in.

Build Allies and Form Coalitions

Influence within an organization is often amplified when it comes from a collective rather than an individual. Building allies and forming coalitions with colleagues who share similar perspectives can help reinforce your position and make it harder for your supervisor to dismiss your ideas. Start by engaging in open dialogues with your peers to identify common challenges and shared objectives. Collaborate to develop joint proposals that address broader team concerns, ensuring that the collective voice is aligned and united.

According to Katzenbach and Smith (1993), cohesive teams can exert significant influence on leadership decisions, as a unified front demonstrates widespread support for proposed changes. By leveraging the strength of coalition-building, you increase the likelihood of your suggestions being taken seriously and implemented.


Leading up is a proactive approach to enhancing workplace dynamics when supervisory leadership falls short. By building trust, providing constructive feedback, offering solutions, and leading by example, employees can positively influence their supervisors and drive organizational success.


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