Women Leading Up

Influence doesn’t require a position at the top of the organizational chart. No matter your title, you can lead, if you master the art of leading up. 

Although I’ve managed corporate finances at the CFO level for a real estate company, I started my career, like all of us, at the entry level. Those years I spent with my foot barely on the first rung of the corporate ladder or stuck in the middle of an organization were much less fruitful than they could have been. That’s because when I entered the workforce years ago, no one explained to me that leadership is influence.

People acquire followers by attraction to a mission, but wielding influence doesn’t require a position at the top of the organizational chart. Leaders can be found in the middle and even in entry-level positions when they influence those in authority over them. Working women, no matter your title, you can lead—if you learn to lead up.

Leading up means influencing those above you in the organization through your willing service to advance the organizational mission. While it can often lead to advancement and promotion, that’s not the end goal. Leading up is helping those above you to lead better from a selfless heart, not for personal gain.

You have great influence when you lead up. Here’s how.

LEAD YOURSELF

Bosses want reliable staff who get the job done right the first time and on time. Even if you have no one reporting to you, you are still leading someone—yourself. Manage your time and priorities. Manage your words and your thinking. Manage your emotions and your personal life (Titus 2:11-12). This doesn’t mean you can’t have emotions and a personal life. By all means, be yourself, but never forget that you are being paid to perform a function. Express emotions with maturity and discernment.

LIGHTEN YOUR LEADER’S LOAD

Your leader carries enormous responsibility as they lead the team to implement the mission. The leader does not exist to help you fulfill your personal ambition. You have a position on the team to help the leader execute the mission. How can you make your leader’s role easier?

Leading up means influencing those above you in the organization through your willing service to advance the organizational mission.

Naturally, you do your job well first. Then, you look for ways to lighten your leader’s load. If you see a problem, you don’t just identify the problem—you offer a solution. No leader wants to hear about more problems that need to be fixed; they want to know about problems with solutions. What is your leader struggling to accomplish or not good at doing? When you identify their weaknesses and then perform those functions for them, you optimize their effectiveness and strengthen the entire team.

HONOR YOUR LEADER’S TIME

Your leader has limited time, and you can best serve your leader by honoring your time with them. Think problems through and brainstorm solutions before you meet with your leader. Prepare for scheduled meetings with items to discuss and questions that need answers. Never wing it in meetings, whether formal and scheduled or informal and spontaneous. After you learn your leader’s decision-making style, honor your leader’s time by getting to the point.

BE THE GO-TO GAL

Leading up means being the team player your leader instinctively goes to when everything breaks and falls apart. Raise your hand for the dirty work no one else wants to do. Work with the difficult co-worker, client, or customer. Go the extra mile and do more than what is expected of you. When the deadline is short, the pressure heavy, and the resources scarce, run into the fire, not away from it.

SEE WHAT YOUR LEADER SEES

In the trenches, team members focus only on the task at hand. Failing to look up and see what your leader sees breeds frustration and disconnect. While managing the team’s task, your leader also looks out on the horizon at the changing landscape. The leader thinks within a larger context and anticipates change with intuition. You serve better when you see what your leader sees, and the best way to do that is to ask them: What are you seeing on the horizon? What challenges are coming? What is coming down the pipeline in the next season that I can start to prepare for now? How can I help the team adapt and change?

No leader wants to hear about more problems that need to be fixed; they want to know about problems with solutions.

As you focus on leading up, you unintentionally train for the next level. You prepare yourself for greater responsibility and make the transition to leadership smoother because you’ve been functioning at the next level before formally being handed the position. No matter how far you advance in the organization, you will most likely always report to someone. Even CEOs must answer to corporate governing boards and shareholders. Mastering the art of leading up will make you much more effective.

Leading up is following with a servant heart and a humble spirit. In our pervasive culture of ambition, personal gain, and autonomy, leading up epitomizes essential traits of Jesus—humility and service (Phil. 2:3-11). Jesus submitted to the Father and led up to fulfill God’s mission (John 6:38). When you serve well, you elevate your leader and play a crucial role in advancing the mission you’ve been given.

(This blog is an elaboration on ideas first presented in John C. Maxwell’s The 360 Degree Leader.)

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