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  • Writer's pictureMark O'Neil

Leading Up in the Time of COVID-19

During this quarantine, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the book Leading Up by Michael Useem. Many of his key points have to do with speaking truth to power, which has never seemed more important than it does now. I’m certain that volumes will be written about how this pandemic was handled, from the very top of the federal government down to our individual hospitals. It’s clear that when leaders fail to take action at critical points in time, the result is catastrophic.

What does it mean to lead up?

First, let’s differentiate between managing up and leading up. Managing up is more tactical, dealing with operational matters on a day-to-day basis. Leading up is far more strategic. It is most often needed during a restructuring or major change of direction at an organization. Useem maintains that while these are two different concepts, they are joined at the hip (see Figure 1).

It helps when discussing leading up to remind ourselves that, as leaders, our first responsibility is to do the right thing. Of course, that is easier said than done. As my friend Peter McGinn, PhD, dictated in his 25 laws of management, one of the simplest yet most difficult to practice rules of thumb is to do the right thing. It’s difficult because there often isn’t one right option. There may only be an option that has the fewest negative consequences on the mission, the employees, the board and shareholders, and oneself.

The principles of leading up effectively

In his book, Useem lays out several examples where the risk of failure is high, in situations varying from the genocide in Rwanda or war in Vietnam to corporate boardrooms and government negotiations. In all of these situations, the manner in which the leader worked with his or her superior made the difference between success and failure. A leader’s ability to influence key decisionmakers is critical.

Useem shares a few principles to guide effective interactions with superiors:

  • Keep your superiors informed on what you have done, what you are doing, and what you plan to do. This takes time, patience, and (sometimes) pure persistence.

  • Estimate your competitive advantage as accurately as possible. Avoid overconfidence or overcautiousness.

  • Regardless of how you feel about your superiors, avoid petty quarrels with them. Your arguments should be rooted in the quality of your analysis.

  • Battling with your boss is a losing proposition, especially in public. Have your discussions in private and with respect.

The essence of leading up can be summarized in one question: When do you speak truth to power – and when do you hold back? My answer: Speak up when the consequences of inaction are dire, or when you see your core values being tread upon.

As commander of the UN peacekeeping force for Rwanda, Dallaire’s failure to convince his superiors that a genocide was imminent cost hundreds of thousands of lives. In the business world, Ayling at British Airways, Pfeiffer at Compaq, and Wyman at CBS were all CEOs who neglected their board, their investors, and worst of all their employees. For each, his inaction led to a termination that he also failed to foresee.

Will you be a leader or a laggard?

Let’s face it. Most of us are not in a position to have to confront problems of this magnitude. However, I was struck by the confluence of these leaders’ positions and the job each of you do in healthcare and other nonprofit organizations. Bringing your board, employees, and the community along with you as you face extraordinary situations is a true predictor of success.

Creating a culture across your organization, in which leading up can be successful, cannot be built at the last minute after high-risk situations have fallen upon us. It takes work and it takes time. Your subordinates must know that you want their unfettered advice, and your superiors must know that they can count on this from you.


Your subordinates must know that you want their unfettered advice, and your superiors must know that they can count on this from you.


We’ll have to wait and see how historians depict this pandemic in hindsight, but they are bound to ask these central questions: How well did our leaders do at leading up? How many lives could have been saved? In the meantime, we can learn from our leaders’ failures and do better in our own day-to-day, to take action when needed and no later, to speak truth to power, and to create a culture where our subordinates can do the same.

If you are looking for guidance on how to adapt your leadership strategies during this extraordinary time, please feel free to reach out. My door is always (virtually) open.

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