Upward Leadership

By Major General John L. Gronski (US Army, Retired)

I have been getting a lot of questions from mid-level leaders about techniques they can use to assist their boss by providing candid feedback. Some people call this “Leading Up”.

I like to use the term “Upward Leadership” which I define as influencing your boss or those in charge to behave in a certain way or to employ a certain course of action to improve the organization.

There are also mid-level leaders struggling with difficult and counterproductive bosses. Upward Leadership is tricky if your boss is insecure, stubborn, overconfident in their ability (arrogant), or toxic.

Dealing With Toxic Leaders

Toxic leaders are particularly difficult. They generally treat people with no respect, do not want feedback or ask for opinions, and engage in behavior that is harmful to the people they lead and the organization in general. Still, one must work with a toxic leader and here are some strategies to deal with those leaders:

  1. Be respectful. Honor the position the toxic leader is in even if not the individual leader themselves. This will keep you from getting into an emotional battle with a leader that you will not be able to win.
  2. Be true to your values. Do not take on the cancerous values of toxic leaders. Continue to lead by the example you set even though the toxic leader displays a poor example of what a leader should be.
  3. Be on your game and demonstrate competence. Getting results will provide you with leverage.
  4. Do not vent to the people you lead about how bad your boss is. It will reflect poorly on you. If you must vent, then find a mentor or trusted advisor you can have those types of conversations with.
  5. 5. Provide the people you lead top-cover and protect them from the actions of the toxic leader to the best of your ability.

Upward Leadership Rules

There are some rules for Upward Leadership.

  1. Timing matters. When your leader is extremely busy or is in the middle of putting out a fire, that is not the time to approach them about an idea you have. Schedule a meeting at an appropriate time when your leader can provide their full attention to you.
  2. Seek and secure permission to provide upward feedback, so that this doesn’t occur by surprise or in inappropriate ways. 
  3. Be prepared for your meeting. Some good practices include sending a read-ahead to your boss so they can gain background on what you would like to discuss. Prepare an agenda and stay focused and on point. Rehearse what you plan to say. Bring in a trusted advisor who can hear what you plan to present and provide feedback.

The Principles of Upward Leadership

There are also some principles for Upward Leadership you must keep in mind.

To provide upward leadership, it takes tact, patience, and you must develop trust. It takes a similar amount of time and effort to develop trust with those you follow as it does with those you lead. Leaders must not only lead down and horizontally, but they must lead up to maintain lines of communication and develop relationships with one’s leaders.

Refrain from overconfidence in your ability. Overconfidence can blind you to the support you need from others.

Keep your leaders informed. “Feed the beast”. No leader likes to be surprised by news they should have had well in advance by those who work for them. A great way to break trust with a leader is by keeping them in the dark.

No leader is invincible, and everyone makes mistakes. Be courageous enough to speak truth to power. Just as you expect support from your leader you must offer support to them too by providing feedback and insight. You may be able to see things your leader does not see because of your proximity in relation to an issue.

It is incumbent on a subordinate leader to understand their boss’s intentions (purpose and end state). If you do not receive that type of guidance from your leader, then ask.

You may disagree and argue your points during the decision-making process but once a decision is made support it, even if your recommendation was not used. Caveat: The decision must be ethical and legal.

Avoid promoting any suggestion in pursuit of your personal agenda.

Have the courage and dedication to identify what was not working well, but always with a recommendation on how to do it better. 

Upward Leadership – A Shared Responsibility

The task of leading our leaders is a shared one. Bosses must set the example by issuing the invitation for honest feedback from below and be willing to learn from it. Leaders must set an environment whereby followers feel safe making suggestions and providing feedback. Subordinates, in turn, should take on the responsibility of providing their recommendations.

Upward leadership does take courage on the part of the follower. Trust is key in establishing a relationship where communication can flow freely between a follower and their leader and when this communication flow occurs the organization is better for it.


To read more of John Gronski’s leadership blogs click here.

Continue your leadership journey by ordering a signed copy of Iron-Sharpened Leadership here.

About John Gronski

Major General John L. Gronski (U.S. Army Retired) is the founder and CEO of Leader Grove LLC, a leadership consulting firm. John is the author of two books, Iron-Sharpened Leadership and The Ride of Our Lives and he is an international and Fortune 500 speaker.

A decorated combat Veteran, infantryman, and Ranger School graduate, John is a transformational leader and has significant experience in business as a management consultant, where he led teams implementing large, complex projects. He now serves as an executive coach, leadership consultant, and trainer.

Learn more about John Gronski at https://johngronski.com/

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