How to Lead Upward

Even if you are high up in the hierarchy at your company, statistically, you probably have a boss. Does this relationship always work the way you want? Who is leading? Who is advising? Are you both gaining?

We’re going to talk about what it means to lead upward, the difficulties and potential benefits of doing so, different types of power, and some best practices for leading upward. At the very end, Aleta Norris of Living as a Leader, an industry expert on leading upward, shares some advice for leading your leader.

Leading Upward

A relatively unique concept, leading upward is about influencing your superiors, instead of always being led by those with more power than yourself. Leading upward is not malicious or an attempt to control someone, it is about inspiring and attempting to improve a relationship for both parties.

Complications and Benefits

Just the idea of reversing roles and influencing someone of higher power can be stressful for some people, and for good reason. It can be difficult and scary — you have to push through norms and the “accepted” power hierarchy, you have to worry about potentially offending someone, you have to be able to clearly define what you want, along with what you are experiencing, and more.

Pushing through all of these can land you in a great spot, though. When you start to lead upward, you will likely begin having access to resources & support you need, as well as improve your relationship with your superiors. Even if that does not happen, you will have a better understanding of your superiors after communicating needs and not receiving them.


Leading upward implies that there is power somewhere, be it above, below, or in an individual.

In an organization, a person can have a few different types of power as a leader. Most people do not have all of these powers. Each power can be utilized to drive results and are most effective when used together.

Personal powers are directly tied to a person’s legacy and reflect more contemporary leadership.

Position Power: Role

This power is based on job title, where someone officially is in a company. Role power is the most formal as it is official and agreed upon by multiple parties — a person’s title cannot be refuted.

A title doesn’t necessarily come with respect, though, so an individual often needs another source of power to create results.

Position Power: Penalty

This power is based on the ability to punish another in order to get a desired result.

While this power can be effective by creating fear, it does not reflect contemporary leadership values and is not sustainable.

Personal Power: Reputation

This power is based on how others perceive you. Having good character and personality can contribute to this power, identified by how much people like and respect you as a person.

This cannot be learned or gained through pressure.

Personal Power: Expertise

This power is specifically related to a person’s knowledge and skill set. This largely comes through past experiences.


Understand what power you have and utilize it. If you have an extensive background in your industry, use your position as a subject matter expert (SME) to your advantage by influencing others using knowledge from experience.

Tips to Engage

1. Be understanding — In most organizations, everyone has stressors at work as well as home-life stressors. Recognize that the person you are having issues with may have a lot they are dealing with and any negative impacts they have might not be ill-intentioned. Take this into consideration when approaching the subject.

You should also try to understand their goals, this will help you ensure you both accomplish what you want.

2. Be a team player — Listen to others and understand what everyone seems to struggle with (this shouldn’t be gossip) and try to help them too. Sometimes, a conversation with a boss can benefit the whole team.

3. Be organized — Letting someone else use your own time takes trust. Don’t disrespect someone else’s time by not being organized and prepared for a conversation.

4. Work on your relationships — Build strong relationships with your bosses and coworkers. As people, we tend to be more willing to help those we like, so get friendlier with your colleagues.

This can make work-life way more exciting, but make sure your relationships still maintain a professional aspect.

Living as a Leader

Aleta Norris cofounded Living as a Leader, a company using a unique combination of training, coaching, and success assurances to help people grow as leaders.

Ms. Norris agreed to answer a few questions for us on leading upwards:

Cassandra Polzin: Who should lead upward?

Aleta Norris: Essentially, every one of us likely has an opportunity to lead upward throughout our day or week. To Lead Upward means to influence a person of power to gain a mutually beneficial result. A person of power may be your own leader, or it may be someone around you who has more actual or perceived power than you do.

CP: What are some common misconceptions about leading upward?

AN: The most common misconception is that it is dangerous. Fear is such a common roadblock, preventing individuals from having important conversations with others around them. Human beings have an innate need to self-protect.

CP: Do you have any advice specifically for first timers?

AN: Anyone who needs the help of someone who has more power than they do can think through a few questions: What is my motive for seeking to influence this person? What is the outcome I am looking for? How will it help others? How might it even help the person I’m talking with? What is at risk if I don’t have the conversation? Additionally, one thing we have to keep in mind in these situations, is that we are trying to ‘influence’ a situation or issue. Do not get too caught up in arriving at the final agreement. Your language may be softer than when you’re leading one of your own people. For example, “I would like to share something with you, give you something to think about. Ultimately, you can do what you’d like. I just want you to be aware.” Or “I need your help with something. If this works for you, great. If you’re not able to help, I understand that, as well.”

CP: How can a leader with position power and personal power learn from the concepts of leading upward (even if they have no one above them, just people below)?

AN: You’ve likely heard the phrase (most often credited to Spider Man), “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Individuals who have power have a responsibility to be other centered, to care about the needs and preferences of people around them. These individuals can learn that, conceptually, people may reach out to them with a variety of requests and that these reach outs may be difficult. They have a role to play in helping to make these situations comfortable for people. For example, they might make statements like “I’m glad you reached out.” Or “I’m happy to help.” “Thank you so much for coming to me with this.” The goal can be to have others walk away thinking, “That wasn’t so bad.” Or “That was a lot easier than I thought it would be.”

CP: How has leading upward helped you throughout your career?

AN: I’ve always, just by my nature, been pretty comfortable reaching out to people with more power than me. I think it is, perhaps, because I am amiable person by nature. I am very seldom emotionally upset or angry when I have conversations; I see the best in people and believe that people fundamentally want to do good. As a result, I have generally advocated for the things I need. Additionally, in my own company, because I am responsible for sales, I have, for years, called upon people with more power than I have. I have been trying to influence people of power to buy our services. Naturally, it’s important for any of us in sales to show up with confidence to our prospective customers.

CP: What is the worst outcome you’ve seen from someone trying to lead upward?

AN: Just recently, I heard an example in one of our own client organizations (cringe) where a person of power said to a manager who had approached him, “When you come and talk to a person at my level in the organization, be better prepared.”

Pair this with what I know to be an arrogant nature, this is a demeaning, diminishing statement to issue another person. Naturally, it’s fair for leaders to coach others below them to be as effective as possible. A better approach would be “It would be helpful, for a conversation like this, if you were able to arrive with…….”

CP: The best?

AN: A couple of years ago, my daughter (who was 25 at the time), was struggling with a situation she was experiencing during her Peace Corps assignment in Costa Rica. She finally conjured up the courage to talk with the executive director of the nonprofit where she was working. By this time, she was feeling pretty emotional. She shared her struggles with the executive director, spending about an hour in this conversation.

I talked with my daughter after this and asked how the conversation went. She said “Mom, it could not have gone better. She was so understanding and so nice to me. She told me she was so sorry for some of the things that had been happening in my role.”

These things net out the essence of what people are looking for. Does the person I’m talking with even care about me?

Wrap Up

That’s a great way to round it out. By leading upward, you want to make sure you are on the same page with the other person and that you both want to help make the relationship better, as well as make each other’s jobs easier. This doesn’t happen by gossiping or kissing up, it happens through effective communication and understanding.

About Leeward Business Advisors

Leeward Business Advisors is a Wisconsin-based corporation that provides business strategy planning, business improvement implementation, and full IT operational support. They offer world class Cloud Computing services, Cloud brokerage, Managed IT services, and a full US based Support Service Desk (called Quick Answers). Michael Polzin, CEO has 20+ years of enterprise business and technology experience gained while working at Allstate Insurance and Microsoft Corporation. Jason Klein, CTO has 15+ years delivering effective and efficient technology to Midwest companies.

Winners of KABA’s 2016 Fast Five Award



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