News & Insight
January 2010

What It Means to Lead Your Boss

John Baldoni

Great recessions can provide great opportunities especially for those who want to jump start their careers. Many might think this is heresy; after all in tough times, isn't it better to keep my head down and wait for good times again? This may work for some folks, but for those savvy managers seeking to effect positive change, and make good things happen, now is an opportune time to assert leadership.

The real strength and resilience, not to mention creativity and energy, of an organization lies with the people who make things work. These are often managers in the middle. So now is a time for those in middle management to consider ways to help their organizations succeed in these troubled times. We call this "leading up."

Leading up and from the middle requires two things: influence and action. Influence is necessary to open doors so you can be heard. Action is necessary to implement your plan. "Leading up," a term I borrowed from Wharton professor and author Michael Useem who pioneered the concept, is the process of leading your organization from the middle. That means you lead the organization from the perspective of a CEO but with the authority of a less senior leader. And it's the topic of my book, Lead Your Boss, The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Leading from the middle requires a good balance of two distinct disciplines management and leadership. Managers provide administration and direction. Managing up is the process of handling things for your boss, that is, when he gets too busy. Leaders provide guidance and inspiration. Therefore, leading up is a proactive process, seeing the big picture and seeking to do something that benefits the entire organization.

Those who succeed at leading from the middle are artful and adept managers. They utilize their management skills to establish goals, plan projects, organize people, and execute projects on time and on budget. Three things essential to leading up are:

  1. Make certain what you want to do complements the mission and strategies of your company.
  2. Two, leverage your credibility as one who can get things done.
  3. Three, act for the benefit of the company--not simply yourself.

The business case for leading from the middle is significant. A survey conducted in January 2007 (well before the recent recession) from the consulting firm, Watson Wyatt, revealed that only 49% of employees have "trust and confidence" in their senior managers, and just 53% believed that senior management made "the right changes to stay competitive." Worse, senior executives surveyed by Booz & Co. in December 2008 revealed that 46% doubted the ability of their CEOs' to execute a recovery plan.

To succeed, organizations will need to leverage the talents and abilities of their middle managers. Those who lead from the middle are problem solvers. They see things and they want to fix them. They seek to make positive change. And while they are not in charge of everything, the way a CEO is, they are in charge of some things. That is, they manage their teams and their resources.

For example, if you are in middle management and you believe that your company should introduce a new product, you find ways of making your case for it. You position yourself as speaking on behalf of customers and employees, rather than simply yourself.
Understand this: leading up is not mandatory. Not every boss can be lead or managed, especially ones who like to bully others. What's more, if you feel it safer to lie low, do so. Now may not be the right time for you to lead from the middle.

At the same time, understand there can be big rewards for those who lead up. By leading up you demonstrate initiative. You show that you have what it takes to get things done. And as a result you position yourself to assume greater levels of authority and responsibility. What you do as a leader in the middle positions you to one day become a leader at the very top.

A version of this article originally appeared on

WJM Faculty Member John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2010 for the second consecutive year, Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world's top 25 leadership experts. This article is adapted from John's newest book,

Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up (Amacom 2009).

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