“Greetings, earthling!” says the average pint-sized alien. “Take me to your leader.” No one ever asks for the second-in-command or the Acting Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of State. But in politics as in business, leadership isn’t a solo performance. The top gun must depend on those just below, as well as on a raft of managers leading the groups and divisions that constitute the whole. And those individuals must be strong leaders in their own right, able to make effective decisions and think strategically. At least that’s how it should be, says
“Greetings, earthling!” says the average pint-sized alien. “Take me to your leader.” No one ever asks for the second-in-command or the Acting Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of State.
But in politics as in business, leadership isn’t a solo performance. The top gun must depend on those just below, as well as on a raft of managers leading the groups and divisions that constitute the whole. And those individuals must be strong leaders in their own right, able to make effective decisions and think strategically. At least that’s how it should be, saysMichael Useem, professor of management at Wharton and director of the university’s Center for Leadership and Change.
In Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win (Crown Business, $29.95), Useem makes the case that being No. 2 doesn’t mean playing second fiddle or simply – merely – following orders. Good leaders at all levels, he argues, do themselves a favor by understanding what’s required of them and meeting the challenge head-on. His book explores this view of “upward leadership” through examples of good and bad behavior from the public and private sector (as well as the biblical sector, via a couple of Abraham’s intrepid conversations with God).
Clearly, good leadership is no walk in the park. And times of crisis put the screws on leaders by crystallizing the demands made on them–and on those who work for them. “The universals of leadership are required that much more when the pressure is on, and the stress is great,” notes Useem when asked about leadership post-September 11. “In addition, under a period of extraordinary anxiety that tests people – such as warfare, restructuring or downsizing – other needs become critical.” Words count much more, and they must be chosen very carefully, he says. Providing information becomes more crucial because people want to know where they stand. And those in charge must remain calm and must restore that sense in the population at large. This is true for leaders and their understudies.
So how did Dick Cheney, the nation’s No. 2 man, fare in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks? “Cheney did a good job,” says Useem. “He has experience and seasoned judgment, and in my view he didn’t overstep himself, because he doesn’t have an ego need to be upfront.”
Cheney was a fast decision-maker. Minutes after the initial airplane collision, when the President was still in a Florida classroom, the V.P. stepped up to the plate. He recommended that the U.S. military be put on high alert and be authorized to shoot down errant aircraft if they appear to have been hijacked. “George Bush is his own man and makes his own decisions, but Cheney’s input was important,” says Useem. “In my view, he served the President and the country well by being a good person to fill in. Not that he’s a paragon of success, but he’s a pretty good model of what anyone in politics would want but usually doesn’t get.”
As the next person in the line of succession, the V.P. must ensure that people realize he has the qualities required of him, should his boss be out of commission, but he must do so without acting opportunistically. What’s required of No. 1 in a time of crisis, however, is different. The President – or the CEO, if it’s a business – must lay out a vision of the future, demand peak performance from those who work for him, and be visibly in control. At the same time, he must communicate ably with the public.
George W. gets a mixed review from Useem. The nation’s chief executive took (literally) a few hours to get his feet on the ground on September 11. “His statements were not strong enough, he was not visible enough, and he was much criticized for that,” notes Useem. “My own assessment is that his style of communication is not as effective as it should be, even now.”
On the other hand, he has proven to be a strong leader in other important ways. “He is unequivocal about what the priorities are now for himself and for the country,” Useem points out. “And on the issue of having good people around him – you will often hear people say that a great leader is a person who surrounds himself or herself with people who are even better. George W. has done a good job on that front. Even if you disagree with the Bush Administration politically, it’s pretty obvious that they have some very talented people at the top.”
The best deputies and managers anticipate the needs of a boss and can step into the spotlight and take charge as needed – and back away when necessary. Colin Powell, Tom Ridge, Donald Rumsfeld – all are commanding leaders whose efforts and considerable smarts enhance the leadership of their boss. The Defense Secretary’s press briefings offer a daily dose of authority and reassurance. “He’s a good example of someone who, like [New York Mayor Rudy] Giuliani, has risen to the occasion,” notes Useem. Rumsfeld had been criticized before September 11 for not bringing enough discipline to the Pentagon bureaucracy, but since the terrorist attacks, he has been widely praised for being articulate, in control, and quick to take action. “He is also nuanced and understanding about the public’s concerns,” adds Useem. “There’s a firmness without arrogance about what he has been doing.”
Useem’s book chronicles the efforts – some successful, some not – of Civil War generals and modern business executives who struggled to manage higher-ups, their own careers and their personalities at the same time. Their examples provide a battery of lessons.
One chapter focuses on Marine General Peter Pace, who had six bosses (giving a new spin to the concept of upward management). With 92,000 marines and 1,000 aircraft under his command, he dispatched his duties efficiently, even as he ricocheted around the world for complicated rounds of decision-making and face-to-face meetings with his higher-ups, devising rules of engagement for himself along the way. In late August Pace was promoted to vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is now the No. 2 military person in the United States.
Another chapter chronicles the gradual education of David Pottruck, a visionary executive at Charles Schwab & Co. who nonetheless took a long time figuring out how to get others enthused about his ideas and how not to alienate those whose support he needed to scale the wall of upper management.
Charisma comes naturally to some, but it’s rarely sufficient to be an effective leader. Discerning how to work well with your boss, however, isn’t rocket science. “It takes time and experience to master some of the key skills of upward management, but it’s learnable, doable, and it’s not genetically determined,” says Useem.
Mastering these skills can also help a person make the difficult jump from No. 2 to No. 1. “If in your previous position,” notes Useem, “you viewed yourself as carrying out a specific, limited, defined task, if you were unprepared to help the person above you to think about the bigger questions, if you were unable to persuade people around you of your own vision – or if you didn’t even have a vision – then it will be a big step to No. 1. But if you were thinking strategically all along, you’re more likely to be ready.” Put another way, preparation is all, and the ability to delegate is one of a leader’s key credentials.
The demand for leadership has been ratcheted up in recent years in politics and in business. Bureaucracies have become more complex, yet transparency and greater accountability require savvier leadership at all levels. And in the business world, institutional-investor pressure has intensified, forcing management to show results, and globalization and the Internet have made competition stiffer. The overall result: A sea change in management perceptions. “The old command-and-control model, where the top people issue orders and everybody else salutes, has been replaced by a different model where everybody is expected to be smart, think strategically and act decisively,” argues Useem. “And that change in mindset has added to the premium on leadership on the part of No. 2 and those farther down the hierarchy.”<!—
Note: Click here toread or listen to three sample chapters of “Leading Up” on the Wharton Executive Education website. —>