HR: “Leading Up” for Organizational Success




We are finally pulling out of an epic situation where many workers were furloughed or told to work from home due to COVID-19. Thankfully, the worst is in the past in many places and people are returning to work. Many questions persist: What will the workplace be like? Will the office environment have changed? Will my job have changed?

One thing is certain, the returning employees’ value to the organization has increased. Everyone who is back at work is necessary and important. However, it is possible performance expectations will have increased or at least changed. This puts pressure upon returning employees to contribute as authentic, high-performing team members, but also to be honest and innovative problem solvers.

Prior to the pandemic, Dr. Timothy Giardino, VP of Human Resources at BMC Software, wrote an interesting article entitled “Why Your 2019 Focus Should be On Followership, Not Leadership.” The article introduced an obvious fact: In order to be a leader, you must have followers. And the corollary is that most leaders report to someone, so they are both leaders and followers at the same time. 

There are good followers and there are poor followers. Good followers support the leader, and influence in a positive way those above them; this is called leading up. Let’s consider “followership” and best practices for “leading up.”

Dr. Giardino describes the ideal characteristics of high-quality followers, or followership, as those who are:

  1. self-directed initiators,
  2. courageous to stand up for what they believe in,
  3. loyal to the organization, team and leader,
  4. objective in making judgments, and
  5. willing to help out.

His point about followership is that if one can be a good follower, it is likely she will be more effective as a leader.

Fast forward to 2020 and the pandemic. In this volatile context, high-quality followership characteristics are even more critical.

In a recent 2020 interview with Power2Fly, SHRM President and CEO, Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. addressed how employees can best contribute in the post-pandemic workplace. He used as a model the “Culture Club” members which is a unique group here at SHRM. Mr. Taylor formed the Culture Club within SHRM in 2017 (Mirza, July 14, 2020). The goal of the Culture Club is to solicit fresh, honest viewpoints from a diverse representation of employees on topics such as workplace policies, conditions, and practices and controversial topics and to give that same group the power of providing their analysis and solutions to Mr. Taylor.

What directly relates to followership is this: Culture Club group members provide the best, honest, authentic feedback possible participate in finding genuine, workable solutions to real, pressing problems. They then make the recommendations (leading up). However, once the Culture Club group members submit their recommendations to Taylor and the final decision is made, “we move forward together,” meaning no breaking ranks, questioning, or re-litigating the decision. Participating in solutions, contributing authentic responses, courageously being honest, and abiding by decisions made are characteristics of good followership.

Now that we know the characteristics of followership, what happens when we must lead and follow concurrently? How do you as a follower provide innovative ideas and influential information to the person above you? That is where you must add another skill to your repertoire which is “leading up”. 

Dr. Michael Useem, Director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, defines “leading up” as:

“the act of working with people above you – whether one boss, several bosses, a chief executive, a board of directors or even stockholders – to help them and you get a better job done.” 

The skill of “leading up” is beneficial to-- and needed by-- organizations. It is a sophisticated twist on followership. It flips the interactions so that managers/followers inspire and influence their superiors.  Leading up demonstrates the full impact that lower management can have. As Dr. Useem emphasizes, “Organizations need more overall direction from below to think strategically, communicate persuasively and act decisively.” 

To be clear, there are important distinctions between manipulating and leading up. The difference lies in attitude toward those above and around you. Those who lead up, and do it well earn the confidence of their superiors. In return their superiors listen to and rely on them.

While every workplace is unique, I have distilled eight guidelines that combine the best qualities of followership with the skills required to lead up. These guidelines emerge from research, experience, successes, and mistakes. In order to lead up, ensure you do the following.

  1. Be humble. If you have humility, you can learn along the way and you may find that your recommendations need adjustment. 
  2. Have your boss’s best interest at heart. This is a characteristic of a servant leader, demonstrate your support both in actions and attitude. Try to understand your superior’s position before asserting your own.
  3. Support your organization’s mission and goals. Remember that these may have changed somewhat since COVID-19 as many organizations are making adjustments to the new reality.  Knowing the mission and goals will keep you current on your superior’s priorities.
  4. Know your own strengths …and weaknesses. It is easy to spend time criticizing others. Turn the same critical eye upon yourself. In so doing, you will increase your awareness of where and how you can contribute. In short, know yourself.
  5. Take a step back to examine workplace events and dynamics before providing suggestions. This is harder to do than it seems. Also called “getting on the balcony” (Heifetz & Linskey, 2002), objectively looking at a situation requires separating yourself from the fray for you in order to consider the culture and undercurrents apart from the daily events.
  6. Consider how your innovative ideas will benefit both your superior and the organization. Before presenting any new ideas that you have, think about their benefits. Be sure to examine them in conjunction with the organizational mission.
  7. Expect to do more research. Again, this is where humility comes in. If your boss has questions or challenges your assumptions, you may need to do a little more research.  Don’t abandon your suggestions, rather fine tune them through research.
  8. Maintain a positive, respectful attitude at all times. Respect for superiors is no longer the norm; by being respectful, you will set yourself apart. Your boss is more likely to listen to recommendations when you demonstrate appreciation.

The workplace is topsy-turvy.  Companies are appreciating their employees and listening to them--perhaps more than ever before. When you are ready to share your recommendations and innovations with decision makers, don’t forget to follow these best practices for followership and leading up!

Giardino, T. J. (Jan 30, 2019). Why Your 2019 Focus Should Be On Followership, Not Leadership. Jan 30, 2019.

Heifetz, R., & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Mirza, B. (July 14, 2020). Workplace Culture at SHRM Grounded in Guiding Principles. HR Daily Newsletter.


The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

Add new comment

Please enter the text you see in the image below: