November 2017 | 

Leading Up, Down, and Sideways

Leading Up Down and Sideways

U.S. Army General George Patton famously said, “Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.” The quote is often used to describe how aggressively assertive he was, conveniently ignoring the fact that Patton said — as a general — he was willing to follow. He implied that leadership involves flexibility, especially in a tumultuous environment such as war. At any one time, and depending on circumstances, there must be more than one person who is able and willing to take the lead.

It’s an idea that resonates strongly in today’s business world, where disruptive innovations, unexpected competitors, and industry upheavals have become commonplace. Greg Shea, Senior Fellow, Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management, says it’s the idea behind a new program, Becoming a Leader of Leaders: Pathways to Success.

“Traditionally, the highest ranking person made the decisions and gave the orders. But today’s leaders can’t afford to have people reporting to them who are not leaders in their own right,” he says. “A turbulent, unpredictable world requires a kind of adaptability that can’t come just from the top — you need everyone to be proactive, scanning the environment, looking for opportunities and potential hurdles, and taking the initiative.”

Shea says that while the idea of “leading down” is getting plenty of attention, there is little talk about how leaders can and should do it. “This is the real core of the Becoming a Leader of Leaders. What are the skills you need? How do you manage and take care of yourself so you can develop others? How can you become a more effective coach and mentor?”

“If you’re not part of a team made up of a set of leaders reporting up, you are creating a vulnerability for yourself and your organization,” continues Shea. “Everyone should be actively involved. One CEO I worked with had an interesting approach. Every once in a while he would say to his team, ‘I am worried about ___ because no one else is worried about it.’ He expected a proactive set of folks who anticipate what needs to be done. He expected to be a leader of leaders.”

The program addresses the challenge with new theories and practices based on the research and experience of Shea and academic director Mike Useem. But it also provides plenty of time for participants to test new skills and reflect on the changes they want to make. “We provide perspectives based on well over half a century spent working with leaders. The participants then have to work on applying them, getting actively involved in their own learning.”

In the program, that means participating in discussions of current challenges with a group of highly experienced peers, engaging in hands-on simulations of decision making and enterprise building, trying out new skills and behaviors in applied learning sessions, and developing a succession plan for yourself and your team. Participants leave ready to manage themselves and others more effectively, make better decisions, and help propel their organizations to greater success.

But becoming more adept at leading down and developing others’ leadership is only part of the equation. Linked closely are leading sideways — working with your peers to develop key interdependencies and fight against vulnerabilities — and leading up — how you approach those who are more senior, and how you find a good mentor and become a good mentee, especially in the mid- and later stage of your career. “Your peers and superiors also expect you to be proactive,” says Shea. “You have to be prepared to lead in every direction.”