Leadership is an action-oriented activity. As a leader, part of your job is to know the right thing to do and get it done. Your role requires decisiveness, good judgment, and the courage to act. You must be the kind of leader that others will not just obey but follow.
That said, as a leader, you always work for someone. No matter how high up you go, there is always someone you are accountable to and someone that gives you direction. As any experienced leader will tell you, the ability to be a good follower is as important as being a good leader yourself.
So what happens when you receive a directive or get guidance from your boss that you believe is incorrect? Perhaps it’s short-sighted, or perhaps it’s the result of an incomplete understanding of the organization or the situation. These types of situations test not only a leader’s humility but also his/her character and professionalism. At this juncture, your job is to lead UP the organizational structure – to explain to those you work for why you feel the decision is incorrect and to suggest an alternate course of action. It is absolutely a leader’s job to push back when a superior gives guidance that the leader believes to be incorrect, and a good leader has the courage to do so when necessary – tactfully, respectfully, but firmly.
However, there will be times when, despite your certainty and your deep objection to a directive, your supervisor tells you to get it done. You’ve protested the directive, and you’ve been told no. You’ve offered an alternate solution or course of action, and again been told no. Now is the time when a leader must draw on his/her sense of character and simply do what he/she is told – and do it enthusiastically and to the best of his/her ability.
This sequence of events is what the military often refers to as “Protest, Suggest, Salute”.
A word of caution here. At this point, the leader may be tempted to offload some of the responsibility for this course of action from themselves to their supervisor. Here’s what that looks like:
“Look, I don’t agree with it either but the boss says we gotta get it done.”
“Don’t shoot the messenger – this wasn’t my idea.”
Weak, inexperienced leaders often see statements like this as a way to maintain their subordinates’ trust in them or to carry favor with those that work for them. The irony here is that by framing yourself as simply a means to an end, you minimize your significance in the organization. If you’re just a “messenger”, are you really a leader? If you explain to those you lead that all of you are doing something just because the boss says so, you are explicitly reducing your authority in front of those you lead – and you’re exhibiting very poor professionalism in the process.
Isn’t it possible that those you work for have some perspective you don’t? Perhaps they’ve had some experience that you haven’t, and that experience has taught them something that you don’t yet know. Humility is a powerful tool here. Remember that no one organization is bigger than any one person – even if that person is you! You’re a steward of those you lead and it’s right to take that seriously. Push back when you need to and do so with courage. But if you’ve done your job by pushing back and have been told to execute anyway, then it’s time to continue to do your job and execute. Own the decision yourself – without shifting blame – and lead your team with humility.