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Upward Leadership Lessons

§         Building your superiors’ confidence requires giving them your confidence.

§         The vital bond between manager and executive should be an enduring and enriching relationship—based on an open flow of information and an open display of respect.

§         Persistence pays, but success requires determination to stay a rocky path when you have persuaded those above and below to follow.

§         If your superiors are not appreciating a grave threat, transcend normal channels to drive home the message.

§         Asking your boss for clarification of inadequate instructions can make the difference between survival and success.

§         When dealing with multiple independent ruling voices, face and serve each superior as if he or she is your only boss.

§         However wrathful your superior, however merciless the message, the well-being of those in your hands must remain preeminent. 

§         The more uncertain your superiors are about achieving a goal, the more clear-minded and determined you must be in formulating and executing your strategy.

Michael Useem’s Biography

Wharton Leadership Digest  

Wharton Center for Leadership and Change  

Wharton Leadership Ventures


Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss so You Both Win. Michael Useem (Crown Business/Random House, 2001) Available November 2001

The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All. Michael Useem (Random House, 1998)

Investor Capitalism: How Money Managers are Changing the Face of Corporate America. Michael Useem (Basic Books/Harper Collins, 1996)

Executive Defense : Shareholder Power and Corporate Reorganization. Michael Useem (Harvard University Press, 1993)




Mike Useem is a professor of management at the Wharton School, and Director of its research center on leadership and change management. Mike’s been writing and practicing leadership development for years, in classrooms, corporate workplaces, and innovative settings such as historical field trips to Civil War battlefields and executive trekking trips to Mount Everest. His latest interest has been in the concept of “leading upwards”—developing the skills, processes, and mindsets to help leaders in increasingly “flat” organizations muster support from, and offer counsel to, those in whose command they serve. His new book on the topic is soon to be released by Crown Business Publishing.

As always, we wanted to understand the connection between the new ideas and learning—and our interview with Mike at the end of August took us down some interesting and surprising paths related to the evergreen topic of leadership.

Manville: How did you get the idea for this book, Mike?

Useem: It came during a conversation with a person who ultimately became a subject of the study. She related how disastrous the mindset in her organization had been. It was one of “kill the messenger” with no room for upward coaching. As soon as I heard that, I thought, “We need to understand and get beyond that kind of top-down controlling culture.” 

As I thought back to discussions with other managers and to research I had been conducting on top management, I became convinced of a tangible need for an explicit focus on upward leadership. What does it require of us, and how do we build a culture that supports that kind of leadership?

Manville: You frame your book around some rich case studies. Give us a brief version of one, and how it illustrates your concept.

Useem: Let’s take Charles Schwab and Co. in mid-1997. That was a time when the Internet boom was really taking off—a time of great optimism but also a time of great uncertainty about what the Internet would do to companies like Schwab.

The number two executive at the company was David Pottruck. He was hearing from many customers that they didn’t want to keep paying Schwab’s high trading commissions for stock trades through customer service representatives; but they also wanted to talk to a real person, even if they were using Schwab’s Internet option which offered a no-frills service at only $29.95 a trade.

Pottruck came to believe that there was a great middle ground between the Merrill Lynch’s and the E*Trade’s, lowering the high-end price and combining use of the Internet with live customer service. It was a huge risk for the company—Pottruck forecast that the new strategy would initially drive down a big piece of Schwab’s traditional revenue—but in the end it paid off. A year later Schwab had doubled the number of accounts, and Schwab’s market cap for a while even surpassed that of Merrill Lynch.

Manville: But what was the “upward leadership?”

Useem: The key to mounting this strategy was David Pottruck’s successful selling of the idea to the governing board and to Charles Schwab himself. Pottruck had to learn how to work with his superiors. Traditionally he had been a brash speaker and a poor listener, and he tended to railroad things through to get his way. But as he argued this new strategy with his superiors, he drew on the earlier coaching of a mentor, a top Schwab manager named Larry Stupski. Stupski had been Pottruck’s boss, and they had frequently clashed. But Stupski helped Pottruck learn how to work smarter with a boss and a board—and to accomplish his goals in a more collaborative and trustworthy way.

Manville: So the mentor was the key in helping him learn to lead upwards?

Useem: Yes, and it was also Pottruck himself. He was about to leave Schwab at one point when he was so at odds with Stupski. But, one day, he finally appreciated that he himself was part of the problem. Then Pottruck turned around and announced, in effect, to Stupski, I’m going to stay, make this better, and do what it takes to work with you. I’m going to try to learn from you how I can be a better leader.

Manville: The old story: a willing teacher but also a willing learner?

Useem: Yes. Both sides had taken the initiative. David Pottruck decided that he had to become better at working with his superiors, and Larry Stupski recognized that Pottruck had the makings of a great manager, if only he could become more effective in leading up. Upward leadership is best developed when you have able mentors and willing learners both above and below.

Manville: So how does one ensure that a culture has people both above and below working on this? How do you scale the “dual recognitions” of the Schwab case? How do you create a culture where “upward leadership” is everywhere and going on all the time? What’s the real role of learning in all this?

Useem: Three organizations have done it exceptionally well, and together they illustrate what it takes. The first, the U.S. Marine Corps, is viewed by many outsiders as a paragon of a top-down culture in which officers give orders and troops carry them out. But the Marine Corps has instituted a practice requiring officers to present their plan of action to their troops for critical review before execution. The front-line soldiers are encouraged to provide upward feedback on what’s right and what’s wrong with the plan. Where can it go awry in the field? What are the downsides?

The Marine Corps has learned to trust its 170,000 men and women in uniform to give hard hitting appraisals of every major plan of action. Who knows better if a plan will work than front-line soldiers who will have to carry it out?

Manville: Another example?

Useem: A good second example is Ford Motor Company. Two years ago it initiated a leadership development program that brings in more than 2,000 managers a year. The organizers divide the managers into action project teams, and they are invited to pick a problem—what should Ford do to fix something important?—and then they’re asked to develop a solution. Other companies do this too, but what’s special at Ford is the primacy placed on identifying a problem and devising a solution that will be of interest to top management—and then learning how to work with top management to solve the problem. Managers must master the art of persuasively presenting ideas upward in the company.

Manville: What’s your third case?

Useem: A third example is more limited in scope but equally significant in implication. Jack Welch instituted a “reverse mentoring program” at General Electric in which he required senior managers to find a frontline manager in their operation who was well familiar with the Web. He asked senior managers to seek advice from their subordinates to understand the Internet’s potential at a time when Welch wanted every GE business to take advantage of e-commerce. The younger people had to learn how to teach upwards and the senior executives had to master how to listen downwards. The reverse mentoring program emboldened people down the line to appreciate that they too had creative ideas, and that they had an obligation to share them upward.

Manville: So what would you generalize from these examples. How does one scale up upwards leadership?

Useem: It requires a combination of two elements. First, if you are leading an organization and you want your subordinates to help you get your job done, you need to create a mindset of learning and acting among all. You want everybody to think strategically about where the operation should be going, propose great solutions to pressing problems, and fill in the blanks when you can’t. It requires that you signal and support a culture of not killing the messenger. You want a mindset to prevail that no one will be cut off at the knees for coming upward with a fresh idea or awkward news, no matter how unpopular.

Second, you need to practice leading up yourself. You can’t just create a culture of upwards leadership overnight. It has to be grounded in you and others around you routinely leading up and becoming better at it. The Marine Corps’ upward feedback, Ford’s problem-solving teams, and GE’s reverse mentoring all offer examples in which top managers are doing precisely that. There’s no gene for management, there’s no gene for leadership. They simply have to be learned.

Manville: Why do you think “leading upwards” is so important now?

Useem: Upward leadership is more relevant than ever before. Hierarchies have been flattened in many organizations, and competitive advantage increasingly derives from the information you have, whether it comes from below or above you. Every organization has to maximize those two-way flows now.

I also see that the management world is much more complex now. One day you’re on a team, the next day you’re leading your own team, and on a third day you’re  working across teams in joint ventures or virtual work-groups.

Everything is becoming more of a “360.”. You need to obtain feedback and input from all points of the compass—and you must also lead toward all points of the compass. Our success depends not just on rallying the troops below, but also mobilizing those above. And that requires teaching others but also learning from others, both above and below.

Mike Useem is professor of management at the Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania and director of its Center for Leadership and Change. He teaches MBA and executive MBA courses at Wharton and short programs for mid-career managers in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the United States. Reach him at

Brook Manville is Publisher of LiNE Zine and Chief Learning Officer of Saba. He can be reached at



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