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Communicating Up

When we think about leadership communications, we often assume a downward flow of messages from the leader along with a bubbling up of messages from an engaged audience or individual. This communications loop from leader to followers and back again is not the whole story. Leaders also need to communicate upward. The recipient of such messages may be the leader's boss, a company director, or sometimes an advisory committee. These messages, like other forms of leadership communications, are grounded in the culture of the organization and are about significant issues related to vision, mission, and transformation. Likewise the purpose of upward leadership communications is the same: to build trust and drive results.

In his book Leading Up, Michael Useem describes examples in which leaders in subordinate positions strive to do the right thing. General Roméo Dallaire, commander of the U.N. troops in Rwanda, tried unsuccessfully to persuade his superiors, both military and civilian, to allow him to take aggressive military action to head off the threat of genocide. It was to no avail, as the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsi began a genocidal attack on each other; more than 800,000 people died during the bloodbath.[3] Charlene Barshefsky, as principal U.S. trade deputy, negotiated a trade deal between the United States and China that both permitted the latter's entry into the World Trade Organization and integrated the myriad special interests on the U.S. side, including those of business and labor. In other words, it was a job that balanced both negotiation skill and salesmanship.[4] Both Dallaire and Barshefsky employed effective communications; sadly, only one of the two succeeded. And there is a lesson in this. Leaders will not always succeed, but they must always communicate. And through the continual practice of communications, they will improve their likelihood of success down the line. When communicating up, it is wise to keep these points in mind:

Upward leadership communications serve another purpose: They create a culture of dialogue and discussion. When employees see their bosses communicating regularly with their own managers, they soon learn that communications is integral to the leadership process. And while individual requests may not be granted or goals be met, the process of communications never ceases.

[3]Michael Useem, Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss so You Both Win, pp. 74-114.

[4]Ibid., pp. 212-247.


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