Written by Josh Fisher

I’ve got to admit that navigating leadership’s complexities is no easy feat, especially when you’re trying to lead from below. While leading peers can pose hurdles, leading up can often feel like scaling a mountain. It requires finesse, courage, and a keen understanding of oneself and those in positions of authority.

I recently faced this challenge firsthand when I noticed a shift in another leader’s demeanor and communication style. This change was unsettling, as it deviated from their usual approach. Despite the discomfort, I knew I needed to address the issue. It was a tough conversation, but I approached it with the same principles I apply to coaching: curiosity, active listening, and empathy. Armed with the Center for Creative Leadership’s SBITM Model — Situation, Behavior, Impact — I articulated my observations and shared how these changes impacted me specifically.

This experience underscored a fundamental truth about leadership — it transcends titles and hierarchical structures. Authentic leadership is about influence, regardless of one’s position in the organizational chart. I appreciate the importance of leading up, not as an act of defiance or insubordination, but to foster growth, accountability, and mutual respect.

So, how can you navigate leading up effectively? Here are three steps:

It all starts with trust. Establishing trust is paramount when leading up. Take the time to cultivate a strong relationship with those in positions of authority. Demonstrate integrity, reliability, and authenticity in your interactions. Trust is the foundation upon which productive dialogue and collaboration are built.

Communicate constructively and empathetically. Approach difficult conversations with a constructive mindset. Be respectful yet candid in expressing your concerns or providing feedback. Focus on specific behaviors or situations rather than making sweeping generalizations. Frame your communication to emphasize mutual understanding and the shared goal of organizational success.

Be the leader you want to see in others. Lead by example by embodying the qualities and values you wish to see in others. Demonstrate initiative, accountability, and a commitment to continuous improvement. Model the behaviors and attitudes that align with the organization’s mission and vision, inspiring others to follow suit.

By establishing trust, communicating effectively, and leading by example, you can navigate the complexities of organizational dynamics and drive positive change from any position within the hierarchy. Remember, leadership is not about titles but about influencing outcomes and inspiring others, regardless of position.

Founded in 2004, Lead Star is the company behind New York Times best-sellers SPARKLeading from the Front, and Bet on You. Lead Star supports professionals to reach new levels of success through its innovative coaching programs.