4 Ways To “Lead Up”

George Couros
5 min readJan 30, 2024

In 2016, I wrote a piece titled “4 Ways to Lead Up” and came back to revisit it today after I was asked by a frustrated teacher how to help move their administrator forward (or have him at least stop her from feeling held back!).

This is an essential conversation, and I think that no matter your position in an organization and whoever reports to whom, you can move people forward no matter where they are on the “ORG” chart. There are many narratives in education that there is a “teaching” problem, but if that is in any way accurate, that is ultimately a leadership problem. Not that teaching isn’t an extremely essential job, but precisely the opposite. Those working closest to students need the most support to do their jobs effectively. This is a reflection of leadership.

But I am very quick to note that “leadership” and “administration” aren’t the same word. Some of the best leaders in schools are teachers, and some of the worst leaders are administrators. This is true with all professions. If you believe your school has a “culture” or “leadership” issue, no matter your role, you influence that culture. I wrote the post below to help people lead those that they might “report to” without losing their jobs :)

I hope that something down below can be of assistance to you, no matter your role.

4 Ways To “Lead Up”

As the world constantly shifts, many schools and districts feel stuck. This is often a direct result of “formal leadership,” as fear, politics, or a lack of vision (amongst many other reasons) can hold the entire community back. Many educators become frustrated with this, as they are ready to move forward faster than their leadership and can become frustrated to the point of subversiveness or leaving altogether. In all honesty, sometimes leaving might be the best option, but not feasible.

People often quit bosses before they quit organizations.

This is why it is essential to “lead up.”

What I mean by this term does not necessarily mean to, as Michael Fullan has popularized, “leading from the middle,” where you can impact many others in your organization. True leadership is more about influencing others to move forward in a positive direction. But to “lead up” is focused more on how to deal with those in authority above you to help them move forward, even when it is hard to do. As people run our organizations, it is crucial to understand that no matter the position, many of the same elements of outstanding leadership apply to working with those above you ‘in a formal hierarchy, as with any other group.

Here are four ideas that might help you with this process:

1. Start by asking, “We are here to do what is best for kids, right?”

If you disagree with something and believe it is in students’ best interest, start with the suggested question and wait for the obvious “yes” answer. Once you start from that point, it is your job to prove why your request is in the kids’ best interest. Prove your point like a lawyer. But if you can’t prove that what you are asking is best for kids, maybe your boss isn’t in the wrong. Always start from that point.

2. Ask questions more and make statements less.

Covey’s notion of “seek first to understand” is crucial in all aspects of leadership. We may be bothered with a decision and why it is made, and it is easy to tell people all of the reasons are wrong or that your way is correct, but there are many times when there are things behind the scenes that you may not know or understand.

It is crucial to help people explain their position and work backward from there instead of trying to bring them to your side. Something might be brought to your attention that you had no idea was happening, but a conversation is more likely to lead to positive change than two people simply stating their sides.

You might find a middle ground that you didn’t know existed.

3. Pick your battles wisely.

Although I encourage people to ask questions and try to understand, sometimes you need to be more adamant about your position. The key here is that your voice is heard. If you complain about every decision your organization makes, the voice becomes more like “noise” than anything.

Sometimes, we must realize that there are some hills that we do not need to die on to pursue a much bigger prize.

4. Show that you see value in your leaders.

This one feels hard to write for me, but there is some truth to it.

Statements like “That’s why you make the big bucks” are somewhat condescending to leaders and create more division than cohesion.

We must realize that we are all connected as partners in education, and just because someone is in a formal leadership position does not mean they do not need to feel valued. The higher you go up, the less you will hear compliments of your work. It is a reality of the work. What I am not saying is, “suck up to your boss.”

All people need to feel valued, and when we look for strengths and mentorship, we are more likely to create a bond built on trust, which is helpful for people to move forward in organizations, as opposed to distrust.

Do what you hope is done for you, and ignore the title or position.

People work better together when they all feel valued for their unique abilities and strengths. (Even your boss!)

With all this being said, the suggestions I shared might not work. Egos often get in the way at every level, and decisions are sometimes made for the wrong reasons. Yet, if you are frustrated that you or your school is not moving fast enough, it is crucial to try something different than simply complaining.

When schools work together, the speed at which we move forward in a positive manner can increase exponentially.

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George Couros

Innovative Teaching, Learning, and Leadership Consultant. I also like dogs.