Steering your boss in the right direction – Canadian Government Executive

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May 7, 2012

Steering your boss in the right direction

Leading Up
Michael Useem
Three Rivers Press, 336 pages, $38.95

When pondering leadership, we immediately think of exercising our influence downward in the organization. That probably comes from our earliest days at work, when assignments and orders flowed down upon us from above.

But good leaders also manage upwards. They know how to influence their superiors in the organization, be it a deputy minister offering a policy or implementation recommendation to a minister or a mid-level government executive trying to sell a new idea to a cautious boss.

Sometimes that happens voluntarily, in the sense that we not only offer our best advice but also dig in and fight for it harder than normal because we feel it’s significantly better than other options on the table. At other times it’s more compulsion, because we fear disastrous consequences in what our bosses are intending or our sense of morality is inflamed. For that latter situation, think of Gen. Roméo Dallaire’s situation as he tried to warn his superiors about the slaughter in Rwanda.

“To come forward when an organization or superior does not encourage it can be both tremendously rewarding and extremely risky,” Michael Useem, of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, warns in Leading Up: How To Lead Your Boss So You Both Win.

“If the upward leadership works, we can help transform incipient disaster into shining triumph. If handled poorly, such upward courage may prove little more than reckless abandon, a career shortening or even career-ending move. Either way, though, we will have embraced a responsibility whose absence we deplore in others.”

Useem’s book, published in 2001, relies on varied stories to provide lessons on this sensitive issue. And unlike most leadership books, those tales include more than business, plunging into the relationship between Civil War commanders and their political masters, U.S. trade negotiator Charlene Barshefsky’s vision of trade with China, the life-and-death necessity of Mount Everest climbers guiding their guide, and Gen. Dallaire in Rwanda.

Gen. George McClellan was a failure at leading up. Although U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was very tolerant with subordinates, focusing on results, McClellan’s regard for his superiors usually verged on contempt. As the Civil War began he was at loggerheads with the Union’s general-in-chief, Winfield Scott, a onetime mentor. McClellan was resisting orders and instructions, to the point Scott confided to the secretary of war if not for the negative effect on Northern morale he would court martial McClellan for insubordination.

As it turned out, Lincoln relieved Scott of his position and turned to McClellan. But McClellan, in a short stint in the private sector before returning to the military, had dealt with then-attorney Lincoln in railway negotiations and considered him a man lacking strong character and “destitute of refinement.” Now, he continued to treat Lincoln with scorn.

One of Lincoln’s leadership habits was to go to his subordinate’s office or home, rather than summoning them to him. But McClellan considered those visits a nuisance and tried to dodge them, claiming he was elsewhere. One night Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and personal Secretary John Hay arrived at McClellan’s home to learn he was out at a wedding. They stayed, but when the general returned he walked swiftly past the parlour where they were assembled, strode upstairs, and went to bed, ignoring them. Clearly not the best way to treat a superior – indeed, as John Hay labelled it, “unparalleled insolence.”

By the time McClellan was ready to start the Peninsula Campaign in 1862, he had alienated the entire cabinet, notably including his immediate superior, the secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. He was relieved of his command.

General Joseph Johnston, on the Confederate side, was another lesson in how not to lead up. He complained when he and three other generals were promoted to three stars, since he was ranked fourth (based on their performance at West Point). Confederacy President Jefferson Davis, incensed, read the general’s 1,800-word letter of protest to his cabinet, and wrote back the “insinuations” in it were “as unfounded as they were unbecoming.” Another protest letter was to get one word marked on it by Davis: “Insubordinate.”

When Johnston persisted in keeping his boss in the dark about his troops’ activities, it proved to be his undoing. Indeed, as Useem notes, “Johnston’s failure to inform his superior led to a result precisely the opposite from what his keep-them-in-the-dark practice was intended to achieve. Instead of creating greater latitude for the exercise of his field judgment, it only tightened headquarters’ control over command decisions that could not be fully trusted.” De-facto control passed to General Robert E. Lee. “Disdain and contempt for your superior – whether a country president or a company manager – will be returned in kind, thus shortening your leash and limiting your assets. Petty quarrels with your boss will similarly damage your name and invite greater oversight and fewer resources,” warns Useem.

By contrast, Lee knew how to work with the powers that be. He developed an open and frank relationship with his boss. There was an open flow of information and an atmosphere of respect. “Building your superiors’ confidence in you requires giving them your confidence,” Useem stresses.

The chapter on Dallaire is titled “Begging your boss to untie your hands.” He warned of the coming genocide, but nobody listened. It’s a sad tale, well known to Canadians. The lessons Useem tenders are ironically more aimed at superiors receiving information from below, including understanding your subordinate’s style of communication so you can assess its import.

He does ask, however, what extraordinary other measures Dallaire might have tried, to communicate the urgency of the situation, from asking the Canadian government to appeal, to returning to the United Nations to deliver his message personally. “If your superiors need to appreciate a grave threat to the institution but are simply not getting it, you may find it essential to transcend the normal channels of communication to drive home a message that they must come to appreciate,” he writes.

On May 10, 1996, eight climbers died on Mount Everest in events that were made famous by Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air. A lot went wrong, but Useem believes had the climbers more effectively led up that fateful day, the outcome might have been different for a couple of them.

Sandy Hill Pittman regrets not realizing her guide – her boss for the climb – was faltering and needed help to go back down. Beck Weathers, another guide, blinded by the snow, was left to die on the mountain since it didn’t appear he could be saved. But he actually made it back. His regret was a miscommunication with another expedition leader, Rob Hall, leading him to imperil himself by waiting for Hall to return from the summit – which never happened. “I did something really stupid in not asking for more contingencies,” he believes.

Useem’s lesson is that it is vital to ask your boss to elaborate and clarify inadequate instructions since that can mean the difference between survival and success. Also, check on your boss to ensure no faltering at the helm.

Barshefsky knew that opening trade with China would be an arduous path for the United States, but she had a vision of how valuable it could be and pushed for one. She knew that she had to not only negotiate a mutually acceptable deal but also build a base of support for it so that President Bill Clinton could follow through. “The undertaking was not only technical, calling upon her best negotiating skills, but also political, requiring her best persuading s

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