how to lead your boss

“Don’t curse the darkness, light a candle” is proverbial wisdom that sure applies to dealing with a weak boss. It’s so easy to get on the BMW Boss Bus — bitch, moan, and whine — about the boss. Or we ride the Bitter Bus into Pity City and curse the darkness of “them” — head office, senior leaders, the board, etc. …

We’ve long defined leadership as an action, not a position. Strong leaders influence, connect, change, and deliver results regardless of — sometimes despite — their formal role or position. That’s especially important in influencing upward to the boss and even further up the organization.

Regardless of their position power, strong leaders develop their persuasion power. You’ll rarely hear effective leaders say, “They ought to do something about that.” Instead, successful leaders say, “I will do something about that.”

As Geoffrey Bellman writes in his book, Getting Things Done When You Are Not in Charge, “You may be thinking, ‘But someday I will be in charge of the committee (or agency or division or team) and I will change things!’ Well, think again. That’s akin to getting married with the plan to start changing your spouse immediately after the ceremony. My research says that does not work very well…it is too easy for us to attribute power to a position that we have yet to hold, or that others hold, and to diminish the power we currently have.”

Here are questions to ask yourself and ways to strengthen your outward and upward leadership:

  • Do you know what keeps those above you in the organization awake at night? What their key goals and priorities are? Don’t wait to be told — find out.
  • Learn to leverage your organization’s relationship dynamics. This involves strengthening trust, persuasion, and influence skills. Build networks and coalitions, especially if you’re trying to influence significant change. Take our Influence Index quiz to assess your situation.
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed, draw up a list of what you’re working on, with time frames or the estimated effort and resources required, and set the priorities as you see them. Regularly review and adjust this list with your boss. Be especially sure to get agreement on priority ranking. When your boss comes to you with urgent new priorities, pull out your list and discuss where those fit in and what should be moved down or off your list.
  • Don’t ever badmouth or put down your boss to co-workers. If you need to get input from others on dealing with your boss, focus on the behavior, issues, or problems, not the person.
  • Ensure your boss gets credit for successes. Look for opportunities to recognize or reinforce his or her strengths and the kind of leadership behavior you’d like to see more of. Make a list of your boss’s greatest strengths and biggest weaknesses and see if there are ways you can build upon the strengths and reduce the weaknesses.
  • Pick your timing and approach. You may need to wait for the right opportunity to approach your boss. Is he or she more receptive at particular times of the day, in meetings or one-on-one, by conversation, or with a carefully crafted proposal? Are you approaching your boss in your own preferred style or your boss’s? If your boss is analytical, do you lead with facts and analysis? If he or she is results-focused, do you focus first on results? If your boss is strong on relationships and people connections, do you focus on the human touch?
  • What could you learn by watching others who have a stronger relationship with your boss?
  • Use technology effectively. If your boss mainly communicates through electronic channels, respond in kind for routine matters. However, if he or she sends you a critical electronic message or gets into sensitive personal issues, never respond in kind. Phone or pay a visit to avoid misunderstandings and escalating emotions. You may need to follow up a phone conversation with an electronic message documenting what you discussed.
  • Strengthen your credibility. Make sure you are acting as you say, demonstrating the leadership behavior you’d like to see from your boss. The single biggest source of your personal credibility with your boss is meeting your commitments. Make sure you do what you say you’re going to do, and never over-promise or under-deliver.
  • Don’t be a victim. If you work for a truly awful boss, leading him or her is likely impossible. Your best strategy may be to minimize contact, build support networks within your organization, develop strong relationships with your boss’s peers or managers, or get out of that reporting relationship.

In his book, Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss so You Both Win, Michael Useem rightly points out, “Leading up requires great courage and determination…. we all carry a responsibility to do what we can when it will make a difference. Upward leadership is not a natural skill, but it can be mastered.”

Don’t wait for your boss or someone else to open the door. The handle is on the inside.