The Case For Leading Up

On December 28, 1978, Flight 173 crashed about 8 miles from the Portland Airport. Of the 181 passengers and 8 crew members aboard, 8 passengers, the flight engineer, and a flight attendant were killed, and 21 passengers and 2 crewmembers were injured seriously.  The captain was extremely experienced and well regarded but still the plane crashed because it ran out of fuel.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NSTB) determined that the probable cause of the accident was the captain’s inattention resulted from preoccupation with a landing gear malfunction and preparations for a possible landing emergency. Another significant finding, and a lesson for all leaders, is the NTSB found that a contributing factor was the hesitancy of two fellow crew members to bring the fuel situation to the captain’s attention.

In 1978 the culture of the airline industry was generally one where airline captain’s actions were not questioned by the crew, especially captains who had worked for the airline for 27 years. Fortunately, lessons were learned from this accident resulting in a culture change where crew members are now expected to communicate their safety concerns to the captain very clearly.


For an organization to be successful everyone must be empowered to “lead up”. Many definitions of leadership identify “influencing” as a key element of leadership and it usually means influencing those who work for you.

Leading up is a little different. It focuses upward rather than downward. Leading up is about influencing the boss, your leader, or those in charge to behave in a certain way or employ a certain course of action.

The Benefits of Leading Up

There are many benefits for an organization that establishes a culture where leading up is not only ok but is an expected behavior of employment for formal and informal leaders alike. A Gallup poll found that companies that establish a culture of listening to employees are 21% more profitable than their competition. No organization will achieve what it otherwise could without honest and open communication upward, downward, and laterally. Employees who feel empowered to speak up are more fulfilled and more likely to stay with a company where that kind of culture exists.

The Importance of Vulnerability

It is important for employees to have the personal courage to speak “truth to power”. It is equally important for leaders to allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to let employees know they are expected to speak up if they see the boss potentially going down the wrong path because sometimes leaders do make imperfect decisions and can screw up.

Leaders can begin to establish this type of culture by communicating to employees that it is an expectation of their employment to speak up if they see something going amiss and then to quickly and publicly reward and recognize employees when they do that. Celebrate the behavior you want to see, and employees will behave that way.

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