Leading Up: 3 Keys to Upward Leadership

Effectively leading employees is paramount to creating a strong, successful culture in any organization. However, in some instances, there are blurred lines between the leaders and those being led. According to leadership expert John Maxwell “Most leaders want to lead, not be led. But most leaders also want to have value added to them. If you take the approach of wanting to add value to those above you, you have the best chance of influencing them.” That is why it is imperative to not only lead those who work for you, but also lead those who you work for. Leading Up, or upward leadership, is the key to embracing leadership development throughout your organization. Here are the top keys to upward leadership that will help your organization thrive in today’s workplace environment.

Expand the Direction of Your Influence

In John Maxwell’s book The 360-Degree Leader, he explains that many individuals have one-directional influence. In other words, some may have good influence with their direct supervisor, while alienating their subordinates. Other leaders may have a great relationship with their team, but lack influence with their peers. To be a leader who leads from all sides, it is imperative to expand the direction of your influence. According to Maxwell, leaders often struggle with expanding their influence out of their comfort zone because they believe several untrue myths about leadership.


  • Myth #1: The Position Myth ­ I cannot lead if I’m not at the top
  • Myth #2: The Destination Myth ­ When I get to the top, then I’ll learn to lead
  • Myth #3: The Influence Myth ­ If I were on top, then people would follow me
  • Myth #4: The Inexperience Myth ­ When I get to the top, I’ll be in control
  • Myth #5: The Freedom Myth ­ When I get to the top, I’ll no longer be limited
  • Myth #6: The Potential Myth ­ I can’t reach my potential if I’m not the top leader
  • Myth #7: The All­or­Nothing Myth ­ If I can’t get to the top, then I won’t try to lead


While these myths can stifle personal development and give an inacurate view of your place and influence in your organization, Maxwell debunks them all with one quote: “Leadership is a choice you make, not a place you sit. Anyone can choose to become a leader … You can make a difference no matter where you are.”

Lighten the Load

The higher an individual rises in an organization, the more responsibility and weight that person holds. The burden of leadership doesn’t simply lighten when someone has more individuals reporting to them; it usually gets more complicated. To be a 360-degree leader, look into ways you can help lighten your leader’s load by taking a proactive approach on areas needing improvement. Maybe there’s a project your team has been putting off that, if you took the lead, would free up your leader’s plate to focus on other aspects of organizational growth. Or if your company recently hired new employees in need of training and development, offer to take a more foundational role in their development with the company.

As Maxwell put it, “When the boss succeeds, the organization succeeds. Conversely, it is almost impossible for you to win if your boss fails.” Focus more on the team’s needs over your own. Instead of focusing on your upward movement, think of opportunities for upward service. This type of leadership is contagious and can help create a culture of focusing on the overall needs of the company instead of the personal career goals of an organizational chart.

Focus on Chemistry and Communication

To become a better leader within your organization, chemistry and communication are key. In the modern workplace, there is no room for the lone wolf leader. People want to work with, as well as for, a person who they not only get along with, but a person they can work side by side with. As Maxwell said, “People won’t go along with you if they can’t get along with you.” Consider ways to build chemistry within your organization by focusing on corporate culture and relationship building outside of normal work environments. Cross-training is also a way to build chemistry and respect between peers. However, chemistry can be stifled by lack of communication.

In a study by McKinsey and Company, data shows there is a disconnect between how some leaders explained their ROI. While 67% of marketers felt they demonstrated a strong returns orientation to leadership, only 39% of C-Suite executives felt the same way. This gap isn’t caused by distrust but by miscommunication. Effective communication starts with focusing on perception and understanding. As a leader, you must ensure your communication is received and understood. Just as you focus on leading your team members with clear and concise information, it is imperative you do the same with superiors. Some middle managers struggle with communication channels within an organization. Break this cycle by working to be consistent in downward communication to keep in touch with your employees and upward communication to stay informed with leadership’s company vision.

Becoming an All-Around Leader

Some individuals allow their place in an organizational chart to determine how they lead others. This misconception has caused a lack of development in the workplace. Regardless of your role, you can lead those who work for you, your peers, and your leaders. It just takes practice. Maxwell put it this way: “I believe that individuals can become better leaders wherever they are. You can change people’s lives. You can be someone who adds value. You can learn to influence people at every level of the organization – even if you never get to the top.” Stop waiting until you are the CEO to start leading. Lead those around you from where you are today.

How have you practiced upward leadership? What have you done to help create a culture of development in your company? Let us know in the comments section below!

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