Leading Up When Team Leaders Mess Up


No team is perfect.

No team leader is perfect.

If you are part of a team you will encounter dysfunction at some point. But how should you respond as a team member when your team leader makes a significant mistake?

Let’s create a typical scenario that might aid our learning in leading up. Let’s say that your team leader makes a unilateral decision to add a new member to the team. (We will assume that if you are a team leader you would never do this!?!) And let’s also assume that this truly is a team–not a committee or a working group–but a bonafide team with an agreed upon team purpose, clear team roles, and a common objective. And to further this dilemma let’s also say that you found out about the addition third hand–some member of the constituency that you are striving to serve informs you about this new hire.

Got the picture?

Is your frustration factor rising just a little?

Is this calling anything to mind?

3 Important Aspects To Your Approach

  1. Assume the best in your leader.  It never does any good for you or your team leader if you approach the issue with suspicion and distrust. You will only add anger to your frustration and anxiety. Assume that the team leader had the team’s best interest at heart. Assume that the team leader saw value in this new member. Assume that this new team member has something valuable to add to the makeup and function of the team. Assume the best.
  2. Inquire, don’t condemn.  If you have already failed the first assumption you will probably fail the second one. These assumptions follow a logical progression. If you are able to gather yourself and assume the best, then you will be in a position to make inquiry rather than initiate by way of words of condemnation. You might use phrases like, “Would it be possible for us to revisit the decision-making process that led to this new hire?” Or, “Can you walk us through your thought process that led you to this decision to hire Susan?” It takes a good amount of courage to assume the best and make the inquiry. It takes nothing to explode and condemn. Worse yet, it will be severely damaging if you say nothing at all. Genuine questions raise pertinent issues and invite understanding and solutions. Condemnation creates further distrust and the possible loss of your credibility and role on the team.
  3. Be solution focused.  Don’t simply raise the problem at hand without thinking through possible remedies for next time. Anyone can complain and point out the problem at hand. It takes leadership thinking to propose alternatives to the mess. Reflect, consider, and choose to be solution oriented as you approach your team leader with the mess. You may not be able to remedy the current scenario, but you can set the stage for next time. Lessons can be learned and new principles applied.

3 Important Team Issues at Stake

  1. Team Communication.  Trust is the lifeblood of any well functioning team. Good communication is the foundation and guardian of trust. Discuss this as a team. Help the team leader and the whole team better understand that internal communication is essential. To be surprised by a third party constituent creates an awkward situation and does not allow you to defend the decision well. It can cause you as a team member to look ignorant and create a lack of credibility for the whole team. Every team member needs to be informed about important decisions to be able to represent those decisions well. Better yet, important decisions should be informed by the team for greater ownership and understanding. Leaders ignore internal communication and consensus decision making at their own peril.
  2. Team Dynamics.  Every time a person is added or subtracted from a team the team dynamics are significantly impacted. Team leaders must not be naive to this reality. You must not only assess the qualifications of the potential new member, but also the impact on the team and the collective effect toward those you are serving.
  3. Leader Motivation.  Ask the leader why they thought this person would be a good addition to the team. Ask them what value this new member will bring. Ask them what deficit they saw in the team that required an additional member. These are all relevant questions. Ask them with a genuine desire to understand–not simply in a backhanded way to dig at the leader. The team leader needs to realize that “why’s” matter.

All three of these team issues are important elements for teams and team leaders to consider and resolve when a poor decision has been made–or a good decision has been made poorly.

Team leaders, don’t simply act and inform. That only works well in time of crisis. Otherwise, be sure that every important stakeholder has been brought into the process.

Team members, learn to lead up well.

(photo credit)

7 Leadership Lessons from 2012

images-1Like many of you, I have been taking some time over the past few days to reflect on lessons learned from 2012. The point of reflection is to learn and make adjustments for the coming year. I always want to be getting better as a leader. But without reflection and lessons enumerated it is difficult to determine what steps to take. I am still digesting the following seven lessons, but I thought I would share them with you and invite your input. So please comment after the post and add to the learning.

1. Transitions take more time than you think. As a family, we moved back to the U.S. from Italy a little over a year ago. We moved back to a familiar city and surroundings, but we are still making adjustments back to our home culture. We were told that it might take up to two full years to feel completely normal again. I think all transitions take time, whether adjusting to a new country, a new job, a new social status, unexpected loss, etc. I have often counseled others that it will take three years to feel completely confident in a new job role. One friend of mine puts it this way, “You are new until you are not anymore.” Transitions take time and that is OK. Give yourself the freedom to be in transition.

2. Directional clarity comes more slowly when tackling something new. I am on a team that is trying to change everything about one division of our organization. To be honest, I don’t think any of us fully knew what we were in for. We are restructuring old and creating new. Don’t get me wrong, the people we are leading are responding well and with great faith. But we have certainly created some chaos. We know where we want to go ultimately, but the how is an ever changing process. The learning curve is high and directional clarity comes in small doses. That is the way of “new.”

3. You have to listen well, and then listen again, when leading up. I am interfacing ever more with our corporate leadership. We have been blessed with some great leaders at the top and I have learned much from them. But like anything, fresh eyes see things to improve. Leading up is more of an art than a science. I am learning from the school of hard knocks. One thing I am clearly seeing is that you must listen to your leaders really well to not only understand the strategy, but to also understand the intent. It is easy to shoot at things that bug you. It takes more time and thoughtful questions to get to the heart of a matter–and that matters when leading up.

4. Propose solutions, and not just problems, when leading up. Another aspect of leading up is that you must do so with some plausible solutions at the ready. Again, it is easy to only whine about the problems you see. You will rarely gain a hearing with that tactic. If you truly see something that should be addressed, then think through how it might be resolved too. Leaders are more inclined to hear you out when you have actually thought through a possible solution. That poses you as part of the solution, and not just part of the problem.

5. Expect these responses whenever you are leading change: accepting, questioning, suspicious, and immovable. As I mentioned earlier, I am part of a team that is leading great change. I have been part of change efforts before, but I am always surprised by some of the responses. I forget that not everyone is like me. I fail to take in people’s past experiences when they encounter change. Sometimes, they have not been led well in the past. There are lingering wounds that cause a variety of responses. The four responses above highlight for me what is typical and to be expected when leading change. All but the last one can be overcome with time and solid, two way communication. It helps to anticipate these responses and even plan for them.

6. It is equally tiring to do nothing than to do something. There have been days over the last year where I have not felt like doing anything. My energy was low and my motivation was nil. Some of that was the transition phase I was in. Some of that was the chaos of the leadership season my team was in. But one thing I saw was that doing nothing is tiring too. When I am inactive I over analyze, rely more on soft data, question my own decisions, and become more cynical about those around me. And that is really draining. I have seen that to be engaged at any level in an active way is better and more life giving than just sitting around doing nothing.

7. Always work toward leveraging your strengths. I am not a young man anymore. I know better what I am good at and what I do poorly. It is more important than ever that I work in environments that tap into my strengths, gifts, and abilities–for my sake and for the organization. But sometimes I see leaders who blame the organization for not utilizing them well. That may be the case at times and there may be a time to move on. There is also the possibility that the leader needs to step up to change the dynamics of their environment so that they are leading better out of who they are. It is up to us first to investigate what can be changed so that we can make our best contribution. I clearly sense that the leaders over me want me to succeed. They are for me. I think this is true more than we think. That creates space to make some adaptations to my functionality for my good and the for the benefit of the organization.

What will 2013 bring? More learning. What are your thoughts? What are some of the lessons you have learned over this past year?

Leading Up & Leading Down

small__160211602A while back, I was helping to guide an emerging leader initiative for a group of Western Europeans. During a Q&A time, one of the leaders asked an insightful question about how to lead up in an organization. It was an honest question and an issue that most leaders do not handle very well. In this post I am offering two critical components in both directions, leading up or leading down, for any leader seeking to properly lead.

Leading Up 

To lead up means to raise issues and concerns with those in authority over you. To do so in an effective way you must pursue your superiors communicating trust and with an attitude of seeking greater understanding. It is easy to think you see a problem clearly and go rant in a corner. Or worse still, rant to your fellow team mates in a way that actually disparages the leaders over you. You must first discern if your concern is worthy of seeking a point of discussion with those above you. But if you feel the concern is big enough, then you must go in communicating your belief in the leaders above you as God’s ordained authority in your life. They have a different perspective than you about the whole of the mission. So communicate your belief in them. This will create space for your concerns to be heard.

You must also go in communicating understanding.

This means you enter humbly, realizing that you don’t see the whole picture.

Go in prepared as best you can.

Understand the problem and the issues that are behind the problem.

Offer possible solutions, but ask for a different perspective that you might see things more clearly.

All of this will help to create space, validation, and the opportunity for creative solutions.

Leading Down 

In leading down, as the leader, you have the responsibility to frame problems and opportunities for your team. Then you must allow them to speak into the “how” of solving these issues.

Be sure that you have chosen the most critical issues for team involvement.  

Be sure you actually let your team speak into the issues and offer solutions.

Act on their advice.

This will create ownership and empowerment, and will lead to better solutions.


Create space to be heard from those above you.  

Create ownership and empowerment for those below you.

What are your thoughts on this important topic? The ability to lead up well, and to lead down well, can have a great impact on your leadership legacy and your ability to impact your world.

(photo credit)

3 Marks of Leadership Maturity


One aspect of leadership I have been pondering is how Christ-centered leadership matures. As I have looked back over my own leadership life it is clear that there have been seasons marked by immature leadership–leadership that was more focused on self than on Christ and others.

What does mature leadership look like?

How is it experienced?

What are it’s marks?

There are three aspects which demonstrate a move from immature to mature leadership.

Mark #1  Being able to share power
Leadership is about power and influence. Young leaders can quickly become confused about the center of power and its purposes. There are really only two alternatives: either power centers around the leader, or the leader learns to give power away. Young leaders often want to control and be served. These are marks of the leader being at the center of power. But servant leadership is about making others the focus, therefore empowering others for success. Power sharing also reveals itself when you have shared leadership. In our organization we usually employ two team leaders for every team, a man and a woman. A leader’s ability to come to the table as equals and truly honor the other leader demonstrates maturity. A good leader also recognizes the wealth of ability in the room and seeks to empower anyone who can advance the mission. Immaturity requires the other leader to be subservient to them.

Mark #2  Leading towards your team’s needs, not simply your own
This is similar to number one except it goes beyond where power is located and begins to steward that power toward someone else. An immature leader can be overly concerned with their own needs or their own organization. A mature leader begins to look at the true make up of those entrusted to them and they become students of their strengths, gifts and abilities. They begin to provide what each member needs to see them succeed. They provide structure, resources, counsel, developmental opportunities–all in the name of making them better.

Mark #3  Being able to appropriately lead up
Leading up is about response to authority. Immature leaders complain about the leaders over them, rather than respectfully engaging them. Immature leaders diminish those in authority over them to others, instead of communicating respectfully about them. Mature leaders are able to trust God fully for those He has positioned over them.

What are your thoughts on this important topic? Let’s all move towards greater leadership maturity!

(photo credit)