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Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win by Michael Useem




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Too Many Lessons

Michael Useem presents eight stories about 16 real people and how they handled the challenges of working with bosses in his book, Leading Up: How To Lead Your Boss So You Both Win. I had high expectations for this book given the topic and the eclectic choices Useem made: from Civil War Generals to corporate CEOs to Old Testament Prophets. While the stories are interesting, the lessons for managers are often unsupported by anything other than a reflection on the characters in the story. While some managers may be able to apply what they read in this book, it will be because they have a healthy dose of common sense and without much value added from Useem. If I counted correctly, there are 50 “Lessons in Leading Up” that Useem draws from the eight chapters in this book. At the end of most chapters, Useem also provides guiding principles or personal guidelines used by the characters presented. All told, it’s too much, too diffused, and despite the use of many sources, it’s without any foundation in what really produces success.

Here are some samples of the “Lessons in Leading Up”:

“If your superiors need to appreciate a grave threat to the institution but are simply not getting it, you may find it essential to transcend the normal channels of communication to drive home a message that they must come to appreciate.”

“Downward leadership and upward leadership are integrally reinforcing; if you are effective at the first, it will beget the second; if you are adept at the second, it can inspire the first.”

“Building lateral support for far-reaching change requires a top management team whose members can effectively back and execute the measure. The proper staffing of that team is your responsibility and not just that of the boss. The same is true of mobilizing the support of others whose backing and approval will be required for execution.”

“Strategy requires an accurate comparative appraisal of your competitor’s strengths and your own. Skewed assessments are more likely to fool you in the long run that anyone else, and they are sure to undermine your superior’s confidence in you and responsiveness to you.”

Here’s the end of Useem’s chapter on the ousting of three CEOs, CBS’ Tom Wyman, Compaq’s Eckhard Pfeiffer and British Airways’ Robert Ayling:

“A first principle, then, is to remember that you have superiors even if your business card combines both chief and executive. A second is to remember the cardinal tenet of the capitalist universe, on a part with nature’s abhorring a vacuum in the physical universe: Never ever surprise your directors. That is when you are most vulnerable, as Wyman found out when he startled his board with a takeover proposal, and as Pfeiffer and Ayling discovered when their rosy financial projections turned to ash.
A third principle is to remember that retaining your directors’ confidence depends on maintaining credibility with your investors and faith with your employees. Languishing short-term performance had weakened the investor support for Wyman, Pfeiffer and Ayling. Troubled internal relations damaged their employees’ confidence as well. Both developments undermined the ample director support with which each had started.
Effectively leading up with your directors thus simultaneously requires leading out to the financial community and leading down through the management ranks. Executives always sit on a three-legged stool, supported by directors, investors, and employees. If the stool lacks either investor or employee support, the directors will find it difficult to keep it upright with their leg alone.”

Many readers will enjoy the stories Useem presents, and will likely agree with many of his lessons and conclusions. In many ways, Leading Up provides junk food for managers: fills you up while you consume it, but it may not be healthy in the long run. With one change, Useem could have turned this into a better book. Instead of preachy “lessons in leading up” that appear throughout, he could have posed questions for readers to answer, similar to the standard format we use in Executive Times. Authors don’t have the answers that apply to readers anyway, especially when the proferred lessons are opinions, as in this book. By helping readers select the right questions based on observations, Useem would have written a far better book. So, if you’re prepared to ask yourself questions as you read Leading Up, go ahead and give it a shot. Otherwise, take a pass.

Steve Hopkins, February 13, 2002


ã 2002 Hopkins and Company, LLC