Leading Up | Michael Useem

Summary of: Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win
By: Michael Useem


Navigating the hierarchical structures in professional settings can be daunting, especially when it comes to ‘leading up.’ In ‘Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win,’ author Michael Useem presents crucial insights on overcoming these challenges. This book summary offers powerful lessons drawn from real-life examples of individuals who have successfully led upwards. Learn how they seized opportunities to steer their bosses and organizations towards the right decisions, facilitating growth and development. Discover the importance of communication, teamwork, and self-reliance in overcoming obstacles and creating a pervasive culture of upward leadership.

Leading from the Bottom Up

Good leaders understand the importance of leadership that begins from the bottom up. An organization can gain valuable insights from everyone, including employees, vendors, and clients. However, individuals on the front line may struggle to “lead up” due to the fear of confronting their superiors. The book presents historical case studies that demonstrate the significance of building an environment that encourages subordinates to challenge their leaders and offers approaches to foster this kind of leadership culture.

Transforming Traditional Brokerage

In the early 1990s, David S. Pottruck joined Charles Schwab & Company, a traditional brokerage that was founded in 1971. The founder, Charles Schwab, adapted to SEC rules changed in 1975 and began offering discount services. The mid-1990s saw a transformation in the trading industry due to the emergence of the internet. Pottruck and president Larry Stupski often disagreed about budgets and authority, but Schwab intervened and Pottruck lost his COO title. On Stupski’s retirement in 1992, he became COO under CEO Schwab. In January 1996, he launched e.Schwab, which let customers buy or sell 1,000 shares of stock for a low fee. Pottruck continued to lead up by gaining a deeper understanding of Schwab’s vision and eventually became co-CEO. His tactics for leading up involved giving constructive feedback in private and refraining from challenging authority in public. Ultimately, Pottruck’s upward leadership transformed Charles Schwab & Company by offering full-service at a reasonable price, resulting in a significant increase in clients and accounts.

Tragic Consequences of Ignored Warnings

In “Leading from the Front”, Raymond Sheen and Ann McGee-Cooper discuss the story of Brigadier General Roméo Dallaire, a UN peacekeeping officer who predicted the Rwandan genocide but was ignored by his superiors. Dallaire warned the UN that war was imminent, and a high-level informant had trained Hutu militias to register and exterminate Tutsis. Dallaire asked for 4,500 trained troops and $200 million but received only 2,548 soldiers and $54 million, including undertrained, ill-equipped soldiers. Dallaire continually sent warnings to Secretary General Kofi Annan, the White House, and other authorities about the impending war, but they ignored his messages. Then, an assassin killed the Rwandan president, Hutu extremist killed 10 Belgian peacekeepers, and within 100 days, Tutsis murdered 800,000 Rwandans. The UN failed to respond quickly, and most of the peacekeepers withdrew. It was only after Dallaire appealed to Canada’s government, journalists, and relief agencies that the UN realized its mistake and sent 5,500 troops to Rwanda. By the time the war ended, two million Rwandans had fled, and two million more suffered displacement. Dallaire’s tragic story illustrates the importance of listening to and supporting front-line employees who see trouble coming, even if it means going against the status quo.

When Attempting to Lead Up Goes Wrong

Thomas Wyman’s failure to inform key constituents and misjudging his alliances resulted in his ouster as CEO of CBS.

Thomas Wyman, the former Chairman and CEO of CBS, faced difficult challenges from new cable news networks such as Fox and CNN after their entry into the TV market. In response, he eliminated 700 broadcast jobs in mid-1986, hoping to save CBS by merging it with Coca-Cola.

Wyman sought a “white knight” to ward off hostile takeovers, and Laurence Tisch, then chairman of Loews Corporation and owner of almost 25% of CBS, joined the board in October 1985. Despite speculations about a Loews takeover, Wyman worked secretly with Coke, believing that the merger would force the board to side with him and block a Tisch takeover.

At a September board meeting, Wyman disclosed that he had discussed the friendly takeover with the executive vice president of Coca-Cola, upsetting the board as he had been seeking a buyer without their authorization or even informal consent. Tisch suggested that CBS needed new management, and founder William Paley supported his opinion.

The board, feeling blindsided by Wyman’s actions, deliberated the Coke proposal and concluded that the network would not fare better with Coke – and that CBS would be better off without Wyman. Tisch became the interim CEO, and Paley acted as chairman.

Wyman learned a hard lesson and became a classic example of someone attempting to lead up but failing to inform key constituents and misjudging his alliances.

In conclusion, the story of Thomas Wyman is a cautionary tale of the importance of communication and building strong alliances when attempting to lead up.

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