Leading up and down

Leading up and down

Several years ago I ran a leadership workshop for a group of young leaders at a major car company. At its conclusion their main feedback was, I wish you could run this session with our boss, he needs it more than us.

I’m ashamed to admit, given they were at the time a significant client of the business I ran, that I did not pass the feedback on to the (afore mentioned) CMO.

I have had variations of the same feedback on many occasions since and have come to believe it offers a powerful and important insight for us all, one that if you’re lucky enough to get some time away from the hurly-burly this summer, is useful to reflect upon.

Leadership is a little like driving, many of us do it and few (if any) admit to being bad at it. Yet twenty minutes spent on the motorway provides plenty of evidence that many are. (I file this column from holiday in Italy, so hair-raising motoring experiences are very much on my mind). Leadership is much the same, few admit their flaws, yet we know from personal experience that there are many in need of an intervention.

Regular readers will know that by my definition anybody who has people they are responsible for is a leader, this means virtually everybody likely to be reading this column, whether it be 4 people or 4,000. Yet it is also the case that the vast majority also have bosses. This is the real, everyday reality for the majority of people in leadership positions. Nearly all leaders have to be able to effectively manage both up and down. Indeed, one way of thinking about the progression of our careers is how this balance shifts. In the early days though we may have people we are responsible for, the balance of our responsibilities lies upwards: we are primarily responsible for enabling the performance of those above us. As our careers progress the balance shifts to us being primarily (though note, not exclusively) responsible for the performance of those below us (in an organisational sense). Therefore, nearly all of us are leading from the middle. It is one of the reasons why being an effective leader is so difficult.

The car company high-fliers are all of us, they had responsibilities both up and down. And though we should not passively accept poor leadership, nor should we fail to use this feedback to reflect on our own blind spots and weaknesses. It is always far easier (and more enjoyable) to moan about the performance of others. However what, if put in a similar position, would our teams say about us? In reality, how many of us know the answer? It’s my summer poolside question.

One of the most powerful attributes for effective leaders is self-awareness, the preparedness to reflect honestly on how their teams feel about them, what more their teams need from them in order to succeed and, the torture test, are they good for their teams’ careers? Thus, my answer to the car company highfliers today would be to start with themselves, after all it is only ourselves we can truly control. They should ask themselves an uncomplicated, but difficult question, ‘I know what I think about my boss, but what do my team think about me?’

I would also, if I have my time again, share their feedback with their boss. And I’d wager he, like them, used the majority of his energies looking upwards, rather than more frequently asking himself how his team felt and what more they needed from him. Imagine how many working lives would be transformed if everybody just did a little more of that.