How successful managers lead up, across, down, and inward

Successful leadership is more than being a good boss. It starts with self-leadership and requires leading across your peers, and up to your boss.

Most leadership development focuses on being a good boss to the people who report to you. While leading down is important if you want to be successful, it’s mission-critical that you lead well in all directions.

Mission-critical leadership, as I define it in my book by the same title, is “using influence to build relationships and deliver results in all directions within an organisation, accelerating it faster and further toward its mission”. In other words, you have to do well leading up to your boss, across amongst your peers, and down to your direct reports. You must also learn to lead yourself well, since all leadership starts with self-leadership.

In my presentation at the 2021 AICPA & CIMA Women’s Global Leadership Summit, I explained how mission-critical leadership is accomplished. Here are some key considerations.

Use ‘ties’ to help you lead well in all directions

Numerous leadership behaviours will help you move your organisation faster and further towards its mission. A simple acronym TIES them all together. Mission-critical leadership requires that you develop:

Trust with your boss.
Influence with your peers.
Engagement with your team.
Self-awareness to lead yourself.

Leading up is the most counterintuitive form of leadership. It requires that you build unwavering trust with your boss. While trust is paramount to all working relationships, that is even more true of your relationship with your boss. Your boss needs to trust you to keep your word and follow through on your commitments. Your boss needs you to do your job exceptionally well and, as necessary, to take on more responsibility to help move critical organisational goals forward.

Leading across is the most complex form of leadership, as neither you nor the person you are trying to lead has role power over the other. Instead, you need to develop influence with these peers, building productive working relationships that inspire cooperation, collaboration, and support across teams. By doing so, you help break down silos and achieve important organisation-wide priorities and initiatives.

Leading down is the most common view of leadership, as it involves being a good boss to your team members. Deepening the level of engagement with your team is the key to leading well in this direction. No one wants to feel like they are a cog in the machine, only valued for the work they produce. They want to be seen as real people with their own goals and dreams, challenges, and struggles. When your people sense that you have their best interests at heart, even while focusing on delivering results, they will be the most responsive to your leadership.

Leading yourself, or leading from within, requires a high level of self-awareness. Being committed to your personal vision, purpose, mission, and values will provide a strong foundation to help expand your leadership capacity. You should develop a heightened awareness of the strengths and struggles that shape your leadership style, and work on your blind spots. Growing your self-leadership will not only help you avoid the traps that have derailed many fallen leaders, but it will also enable you to overcome the numerous obstacles you will encounter on your leadership journey. Remember, to lead others well you must first lead yourself well.

Show up as your best self and deliver your best value

How can you show up as your best self and deliver your best value in every situation? This is a great question to ask yourself, because if you want to be a successful leader, every situation you encounter is an opportunity to demonstrate leadership — in one direction or another.

That was certainly true for a coaching client I refer to as Bill, a financial analyst for a multinational company. Bill liked his company and had a good job there, but he wanted more. He wanted to advance into a leadership role. Imagine Bill’s frustration as he watched several of his peers get promoted — and he did not. He was stuck, wondering what it would take to achieve the promotion he desired.

When I asked Bill how he was perceived in the workplace, he responded, “I’m known for quality work. My reports are accurate and always done on time. I get along well with my co-workers. I get good performance reviews.” As he spoke, he realised it would take more than that to get promoted to manager.

I suggested that Bill develop a new approach that would help him show up as a leader, not just as an analyst. To do so, I challenged him to come up with three words that describe him when he shows up as his best self and delivers his best value — three words that would help him get noticed.

When Bill returned for our next coaching session, he excitedly announced, “I have my one word.” I was curious, thinking he misunderstood the directions. I reminded him that I had suggested three words. “Nope,” he replied, “I narrowed it down to one. I want to be known as a ‘firestarter’.” Now I was even more curious.

Bill explained that he could start using the data, charts, graphs, and reports he created to ask pertinent questions, start conversations, and share insights that would help leaders manage their parts of the business better. From there, he worked on a plan to show up every day as a “firestarter”.

It worked! Within a few weeks, his superiors noticed the change in Bill. Shortly after that, he received the promotion that had eluded him in the past. You might not be able to boil down your leadership approach to one word, so go ahead and use the three-word approach I suggested to Bill.

What are three words that describe you when you show up as your best self and deliver your best value? It’s OK for them to be aspirational. In fact, they should represent attributes or behaviours that you’re striving towards, even if you aren’t consistent with them now. Don’t overthink the question; your first impressions might be right on. That was true in my case. I’ve used the exact three words for over six years: insightful, confident, and engaging.

Once you identify your three words, make it a daily practice to ask how you can show up that way — in every meeting, presentation, conversation, and interaction. Like Bill, use your three words to lead up and demonstrate your value to superiors who make promotion decisions. Use them in leading across amongst your peers as you collaborate on moving cross-functional projects forward. Or as you meet with the team you lead to present organisational change initiatives that require their buy-in. As you do, you will get noticed, just like Bill did. You will show up as your best self and deliver your best value as a leader.

Jon Lokhorst, CPA, PCC, is a leadership coach, corporate trainer, keynote speaker, and author of Mission-Critical Leadership: How Smart Managers Lead Well in All Directions. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe at


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