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Leading Up

“How do you lead up in an organization?” Or the derivative, “How can I lead without having any power?” Those questions are being asked with increasing frequency, and I’ve been asking the same questions myself lately. After thoughtful consideration, the questions may be difficult, but perhaps the answers need not be.

A decade ago, I attended a speech on a university campus in the Midwest. Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke to an audience of roughly 200 citizens encouraging them to get out and vote. I’ll paraphrase his message:

“People often tell me they have no power at work. But that’s not true. They may not have formal authority of position, but they have power. They have the power of their beliefs, their convictions, and their values. They have the power of those people with whom they surround themselves. Indeed, we all have power. Now, we need to harness it.”

These sentiments are even more true today than ever before. We ask these questions, because we are working in outdated organizations. The old top-down traditional hierarchy no longer adequately helps our organizations meet their aims, nor does it fit the needs of our professional employees. Those who sit on top of traditional rigid pyramids are being usurped by new nimble, agile, and responsive organizations which have learned to harness the talents of their professionals.

These new organizations are mission and value driven. They need leaders of different types spread throughout the system. Michael Useem, author of Leading Up, wrote of the old and new models: “Old work rule: Leadership is something bestowed upon you by the company or organization. It comes with the authority associated with your job title. New work rule: Leadership is everyone’s responsibility. You must help lead your team, regardless of your job title or level of authority.” Keith Ferrazzi, author of Leading Without Authority, wrote,“Command and control from on high are giving way to insight and initiative down under.”

The classic hierarchical model seems to be all that we know; it seems to be all that we were taught and all that we experienced. It’s our mimetic isomorphism—our only view of what is and what could be. The model, however, is flawed in its conception and philosophy. A fundamental presupposition is that the person higher up the pyramid knows more than those below. This is a profound misunderstanding and misapplication in a professional organization.

Frederick Taylor made a science of worker efficiency during the Industrial Age. He designed a model for factories and automatons. Max Weber, fearful of too much power in the hands of a singular boss, envisioned a bureaucratic model whereby decision making would be diffused across the organization’s highly trained and objective professional workforce. Unfortunately, the model has become too rigid in structure, out of touch with the locus of the decision impact, and not responsively nimble.

So, the model in entrenched; it’s all we know; it’s not going away. What are we to do? How can we empower the bright professional workforce we employ? How can the intelligent and creative professionals lead up without formal authority?

We’ve got challenges from above. We’re expecting the leaders at the top of the hierarchy to change. However, they have played by the rules to get to the top, and they were successful. Now, we want to change the rules on them. This is a tough ask. Maybe we need to challenge ourselves, first. Maybe we need to start by asking ourselves, “Has anyone led up to me? What did it look like? What culture have I established to allow and encourage my staff to lead up to me? And who are these new professionals in today’s organizations?”

Michael Maccoby, author of The Leaders We Need, explained leaders need to understand today’s professional workforce. This Interactive professional expects connection with others, yet a desire for autonomy. They want to work on self-sufficient teams and to be listened to. They look askance at people who wield their authority, and they often have more specific knowledge than their supervisors. Today’s professionals work best not in hierarchies, but rather in collaborative heterarchies.

So, how can we model opportunities for our own staff to lead up to us? We need to establish a culture of trust and collaboration. We need to support risk-taking dialogue and encourage opportunities for different members to take leadership roles on varied projects. It will require that we listen first to understand and then to be understood. It will require that we are humble, honest, and forthright. While all of our work will be mission-driven, process in how we get there will be critical. In all, we need to treat one another with dignity and respect.

These same behaviors will go a long way in helping us to lead up to our own bosses. We need to actively listen to them and to serve them with a focus on the organization’s mission. We need to understand the demands placed upon them and to respect their authority. Our leaders rely on our expertise and knowledge to serve them with wise counsel. This requires that we move from a transactional to a transformational relationship, and one with “a bias for action.”

We need to critically examine our own motives and actions. We need, most of all, to be good role models to serve as exemplars of the leadership we expect. At times we will need to know when to back down and other times when to speak up. We must be forthright, communicate often, not withhold information, and be persistent. In every interaction, we need to remain humble and to treat our leaders with dignity and respect. A good place to start is with practicing The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders as described by Karl Haden and Rob Jenkins.

A final personal anecdote to conclude. Thirty years ago, I was a young public school principal. I had the authority to tell my teachers to hand their next week’s lesson plans in to me on Friday afternoon before they left for the weekend. They would do that. Their lessons would tell me precisely what they would be doing each hour the following week. Yet, when they closed their classroom doors on Monday morning, they would teach what and how they wanted. Did I really know what they were doing? Was I really expressing power?

On the other hand, over the weeks and months, I could sit down with my colleague teachers to discuss what we knew about how our students learned and how we believed best to teach them. This was a professional heterarchy—I empowered them by giving away my power. Then, when they turned in their lesson plans on Friday afternoon, I could be much more confident I knew what they were doing when they closed their doors on Monday morning.

We don’t need authority to lead up; we need to leverage our power—the power of our beliefs, our expertise, and our values as collaborative team members.


Perry R. Rettig, Ph.D., Vice President for Academic Affairs at Piedmont College in Demorest and Athens, Georgia.

Calling Out and Calling On Myself in the Face of the Coronavirus

Calling Out and Calling On Myself in the Face of the Coronavirus

AAL Senior Consultant J. Ross Peters offers his perspective on learning and character in light of this time of transformation. When this is all said and done, who will we be as people? What do our futures look like? To hold himself accountable, Peters creates a plan for the kind of person he will strive to be during this crisis, steering away from the temptation of being overly reactive. For inspiration, he encourages readers to look at the sorts of models we envision our students becoming, as these figures are needed now more than ever.

Read the full article here >>

What Makes a Knowledgeable Citizen During the Pandemic

What Makes a Knowledgeable Citizen During the Pandemic

In this extraordinary, “post-truth” time, we should all do our best to fulfill the role of a knowledgeable and responsible citizen. As a follow-up to his previous piece titled Calling Out and Calling On Myself in the Face of the Coronavirus, AAL Senior Consultant J. Ross Peters challenges himself to commit to a series of “knowledgeable citizen compass” points in order to shape the kind of person he feels he ought to be. The key is to focus on what we can control – not dispensing energy on what we cannot. He also adds an important note for any readers who are parents and/or educators that considers the development of younger generations. Read the full article here >>

Leading in Crisis: Be Calm and Have a Plan

Leading in Crisis: Be Calm and Have a Plan

By: Prof. Rob Jenkins, AAL Senior Consultant, co-author of The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders and Professor at Georgia State University

Leadership is never more important than in times of crisis, whether minor on not-so-minor. When things go south, people have a natural tendency to become agitated, even panic. They also begin to question the decision-making of those above them on the org chart and the direction of the organization itself.

None of those reactions is conducive to the kind of efficiency and unity—the “pull together” mentality—needed to get through a crisis, especially a major one.

That’s why it’s vitally important, in the face of a crisis, for leaders to do two things: 1) remain calm and 2) have a viable plan to address the situation.

For a leader, the importance of calmness under fire is impossible to overstate. We can certainly see this illustrated in extreme circumstances, like combat. In the chaos of the battlefield, when many are just a heartbeat or two away from abject panic, the leader who can somehow remain calm is the one who can rally the troops.

The truth is, most people don’t like to panic; they’re looking for any reason not to. Someone in a very visible position who clearly is not panicking offers them an anchor to which they can attach themselves and thereby not be swept away on the currents of fear and anxiety.

We can see the same dynamic at work in sports. Next time your favorite pro or college basketball team is down by ten points, and the coach calls a time-out, try paying attention to what goes on in the huddle. Chances are, you’ll see the coach talking to the players very calmly. Sometimes there will be histrionics, but usually, those are reserved for when the team is ahead but players aren’t giving their best effort. When the tide of the game seems to turn against them, that’s when great coaches are able to head off panic by displaying calm.

The ability to remain calm in a crisis may be inborn, to some extent, but mostly it’s a quality developed intentionally through strict discipline and practice, and then forged in the furnace of impending chaos. It requires a great deal of courage because chances are good that the leader, underneath his or her outwardly calm exterior, is feeling all the same negative emotions as anyone else. Remember how we define “courage” in The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders: It’s not the absence of fear but rather the willingness and ability to do what needs to be done in spite of that fear.

Facing a crisis with calm also requires a great deal of confidence—in yourself, the people you lead, and the organization. Indeed, that sort of quiet confidence, even more than the unruffled physical appearance, is what resonates with people. When bad things are happening all around them, what they really want to know, more than anything else, is that ultimately it’s all going to be okay. It’s vital for leaders to project that belief, even if they’re not quite sure themselves.

Here’s the bottom line: If you as a leader panic, everyone else is going to panic, too. That’s when things can really fall apart. Therefore it’s absolutely vital for you to remain calm, whatever the cost.

The other key for leaders in a crisis is to have a plan. Simply remaining calm will have an immediate, positive effect on the people around you, but that won’t last unless they come to believe, at some point, that you actually have a strategy, or a set of strategies, for moving the organization beyond the crisis. Otherwise, they’ll quickly come to see your outward calm for what it is—merely a façade, not based on anything substantive. Then panic will really set in.

Initially, at least, your plan doesn’t necessarily have to be fully fleshed-out and approved by all the appropriate committees. That can come later. At the moment of crisis, or shortly thereafter, you just need to have some ideas for addressing the situation, ideas that strike people as sensible, practical, and fair.

Those ideas don’t even necessarily have to be your own. You might not have time to seek approval from six committees, but unless you’re in the middle of a firefight or there are two minutes left to go in the game, you probably do have time to seek advice and input from trusted mentors, other professionals (perhaps in the form of books and articles), and even those around you.

In fact, one very effective way of dealing with a crisis is to bring everyone affected to the table for a brainstorming session. You have to be careful with this, lest it appears that you’re completely out of ideas. The people you lead probably don’t want to be the ones steering the ship—but they will have no problem helping to man the oars, and perhaps even suggesting a course correction or two.  

So you might want to start a meeting like this by tossing out a few ideas of your own for discussion, then asking for input and suggestions from the other people around the table. Chances are, they will see things that you don’t see, and the combined brainpower of the group will be able to make significant progress in charting a course out of the current trouble.

But that will happen ONLY if they believe such a course is possible. That’s where your quiet confidence as a leader comes in. You may not have all the answers—and there’s no shame in acknowledging that—but you do have SOME ideas, at least, and you’re open to other ideas as well. But the most important thing is that you believe in the people around the table, you believe in the organization, and you believe in yourself. You’re convinced that a solution is indeed possible, and that attitude will be evident to the others in the meeting, who will likely follow your lead.

So just to recap, briefly: In a crisis, as a leader, you have to remain calm. If you panic, everyone will panic, and the situation will disintegrate even further. But mere outward calm is not enough. You also have to have a plan to address the crisis, even if that plan is just getting everyone together to come up with a plan.

If you’ll do just those two things—be calm and have a plan—when the you-know-what hits the fan, chances are very good that your organization—and your career—will not only survive but ultimately thrive.  

2019 July AAL Newsletter

Relation-Based Leadership for the 21st Century

by Evelyn Booth & Jonathan Silk

How do we lead in a world that’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous? Scholars Evelyn Booth and Jonathan Silk suggest that incorporating people-first, relationship-focused priorities into your leadership will help you navigate this challenging world. In turn, you end up with an organization where teams can thrive.

Read more 

Our Dangerous Obsession with Perfectionism is Getting Worse

by Thomas Curran

The pursuit of perfection can be tempting for leaders, but it may be more detrimental than beneficial. Thomas Curran, a social psychologist, reviews how pressures to be perfect are causing us harm. For educators, his words offer insight on how to interact with students.

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Are You Working on You? Questions for Improving the Quality of Your Leadership

by John R. Stoker

This piece from John R. Stoker, author and leadership expert, encourages self-reflection as we assess our awareness of our own leadership. He walks us through 10 questions to ask ourselves to help clarify our relationship with work.

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2019 June AAL Newsletter

Does Absentmindedness Affect Life Balance?

by Dr. N. Karl Haden

Founder and President of AAL, Dr. N. Karl Haden, shares his perspective on one of his favorite topics in leadership: life balance. Using the philosopher Sōren Kierkegaard’s words as context, he discusses the relationship between life balance (or lack thereof) and absentmindedness. How can we alleviate the ailment of absentmindness and regain control of time in our personal and professional lives?

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Five Common Communication Mistakes (And How to Fix Them)

by Matt Abrahams

Instead of trudging through an unengaging and therefore ineffective presentation, try upgrading your communication skills to make them better. Stanford lecturer Matt Abrahams shares five common errors you may engage in while presenting and how you can correct them. In turn, you can expect increased efficiency and productivity in your meetings.

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Life Hacks from Marcus Aurelius: How Stoicism Can Help Us

by Knowledge@Wharton

What do you know about Stoicism? Have you ever applied its practices to your professional life? Author Marcus Aurelius is interviewed on his new book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius and walks us through how Stoicism can be applied in business settings. “If we want to suffer less, we need to learn to embrace our pain and live with it without struggling against it as much,” he says.

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Create a Workplace Where Everyone Feels Comfortable Speaking Up

by Khalil Smith, Chris Weller, & David Rock

In an organizational psychology study at a hospital, one researcher found that those perceived to have higher status are more likely to speak their mind in critical, life-or-death situations. NeuroLeadership Institute members Khalil Smith, Chris Weller, and David Rock review why creating an environment that fosters speaking up is important and provide tips on how to do so.

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Nine Bad Habits You Must Break to be More Productive

by Dr. Travis Bradberry

Are you aware of your bad habits and how they are impacting your work productivity? Dr. Travis Bradberry, author and expert in emotional intelligence, lists nine of the worst offenders so you can more easily identify them and reduce their occurrence – in and out of the workplace.

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2019 April AAL Newsletter

Put Hope into Practice

by Jeanie Cockell & Joan McArthur-Blair

Hope is a key element of leadership, but practicing it can be difficult for many. Leadership experts Jeanie Cockell and Joan McArthur-Blair provide readers with bites of wisdom to help you navigate your personal practice of hope.

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The Life of a CEO: Set the Direction, Communicate Often and Be Inspiring

by Adam Bryant

Learn about Herman Miller CEO Andi Owen’s approach to leadership through her interview with Adam Bryant. She discusses how her habit of switching to different departments gave her the skill and tool sets to tackle the CEO position, as well as the importance of communication.

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Your Emotions at Work Are Contagious

by Daniel Goleman

As a leader, your emotions can spread amongst your team. Emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman writes about how the emotions you exhibit can actually be infectious in nature by directly influencing the emotions of your team members. 

Read more 

Four Things Servant-Leaders Never Say

by Keith Corbin

Does your service push you to be the best leader you can be? That’s service leadership. Keith Corbin, leadership coach and mentor, has suggestions on how to best embody service leadership; specifically, what phrases you ought to avoid.

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The Cure for the Loneliness of Command

by Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries

For some, it truly is lonely at the top. For those struggling with the feelings of stress and burnout that result, Professor Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries of INSEAD offers strategies to persevere and overcome.

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8 TED Talks That Will Change Your Life

by Jessica Stillman

Do not underestimate the power of a TED Talk: web users recently shared the speeches that truly changed their lives. Writer Jessica Stillman compiled their answers into a top eight list.

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2019 March AAL Newsletter

How Regret Can Be Your Friend

by Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries

“Dealing with regret is a universal human experience,” writes INSEAD Professor Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries. Considering this, leaders ought to leverage the effects of regrets for self-improvement and development. He walks through how you can make regret your friend.

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Take 5: How to Build Trust in the Workplace

by Emily Stone

Emily Stone, senior research editor at Kellogg Insight, discusses strategies for developing greater trust among your team members. Included is a video from Professor Harry Kraemer with even more tips on building trust as a leader.

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Your Emotions at Work Are Contagious

by Daniel Goleman

As a leader, your emotions can spread amongst your team. Emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman writes about how the emotions you exhibit can actually be infectious in nature by directly influencing the emotions of your team members. 

Read more 

3 mind tricks to prevent burnout when you can’t stop worrying about work

by Randy Paynter

There is now more support for the idea that repetition solidifies habits. Writer Robby Berman reviews a new paper from Psychological Review (linked within) that studied digital mice to research habit formation.

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As Long as We Associate Leadership with Masculinity, Women Will Be Overlooked

by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Founder and CEO
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Professor at University College London and Columbia University, shares his perspective on the underrepresentation of women in leadership in the context of a society that continuously shows dissatisfaction with current leadership and management.

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