The Pragmatics of Power: Leading from the Follower’s Role

David Bradford, on “managing up” in the workplace, makes some powerful points in the Stanford Business Review, about subordinate relationships with bosses. In essence, this is a business world view of courageous, creative followership, or more accurately, multiple leader relationships that make a difference between a successful company and a chaotic one.

“We want to build a world in which people are more in control of their own destiny, so you’re not taking a subordinate orientation that says, “If only my boss would do these things for me.”

This is not about making a perfect boss; it’s about you making a better relationship. It is keeping the boss’s needs in mind and even taking responsibility to try to balance what the boss is not good at. Let’s say your boss puts off decisions. You could say, “Hey, Boss, my sense is you like to get as much information as possible before making a decision, but we get criticized when decisions are delayed. Is it okay if I am more active in pushing for decisions?” This is a more useful way than grousing about the problem. It’s you being a proactive junior partner.”

Can boss-employee dynamics be changed by leading up?

Can boss-employee dynamics be changed by leading up?

The interview with Bradford follows up on his book Influence Without Authority, with Allan R. Cohen and David L. Bradford, describing how even workers with no official power can effect change in an organization. They recently teamed up again to write Influencing Up, which explains how employees can manage upwards in the organizational chart — and why they need to, now more than ever.

It’s important to pay attention to these practical visionaries, who understand the reciprocal relationships between leaders and the leaders who follow them. In our field, we often isolate the roles of leader and follower, so we can study more intensely the single leader’s success or failure. This approach broadens the field — acknowledging that any hierarchy has many leaders on each level — and leadership needs to go upwards not just downwards in those systems.

Maybe it’s time to consider every group as a “leaderless” organization. We often talk about activist, non-hierarchical groups as “leaderless,” and imagine that top down groups have one leader, because there’s someone we can name, who can say, “the buck stops here.” In reality, the buck stops everywhere, on every level. So check this out, and see what resonates in your own leadership, up or down.


  1. […] In the end, it’s all about team building — in a focused, practical way, one person at a time. “Serving around” is a problem-solving, motivating way to find out what’s really going on in an organization. Whether you consider yourself a manager or a leader, or both, it makes sense to connect with a clear, strategic focus on the person you want to learn about. Very aloha leadership — very common sense. It may even be a good way for followers to lead up! […]


  2. […] They were generally already somewhat alienated from it, already asking different questions, observing problems bosses didn't want to acknowledge. But with a changed perspective, new strategies, they were able to negotiate better. Sometimes I […]


  3. […] do you think? Can consumers be creative followers,  “leading up” on Black […]


  4. […] relationships outside the networking group, through partnerships (“leaning in“), leading up and […]


  5. […] or acclaim or insults than the average person, i.e. the follower. But despite all our talk about creative followers, we tend to minimize the powerful role of a leader’s […]


  6. […] But how can this cultural problem (by no means limited to the military!) be addressed before it results in suspension or dishonor? The answer is: courageous followers. […]


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