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Hamish Mackay-Lewis

Hamish Mackay-Lewis



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Thought Leadership


Be Brave with Your Boss

As the world of business becomes ever more demanding and fast paced, leaders have to react quickly, indeed if possible, to try to anticipate the constantly changing demands of the market place. The ambiguity and uncertainty that flows from this can make it hard for the senior leadership team to set a clear and consistent strategic direction for their people.

Take Rob, for example, a manager in a FTSE 100 company who is constantly being pitched ‘fast-balls’ from his boss. Everything has to be done immediately, but he struggles to prioritise for himself because only vague strategic goals are communicated. Despite the enormous pressure this puts him under neither he, nor his peers, choose to challenge their boss or explain the effect this is having on their teams. This situation may reveal a lack of clarity from Rob’s boss, but it also reflects poorly on Rob’s own leadership. What Rob fails to recognise is that he is making a conscious decision to stay with a situation, which is sub-optimal both for himself and the business he is trying to grow. Furthermore, his boss who is grappling with a number of disparate and complex challenges, actually needs her direct reports to give her feedback and hold her accountable.

The closer people get to the top of an organisation, the more they can feel they have to lose.  This can make seniors afraid to ask their boss (or subordinates) for clearer direction, in case they are perceived to be weak or incompetent. Yet the higher you rise in an organisation the more your actions set the culture of the company and the more important it is for you to be brave and authentic to yourself.

So much of leadership is about truth and authenticity.  In not holding your superior accountable for his/her leadership, then you are not being a leader yourself. If you find yourself in a position where you are no longer being true to yourself, or indeed the espoused values of the organisation, you have a decision to make.  Are you going to live with it, or are you going to be brave and trust in who you are and what you believe to be right?

Have the confidence to challenge your leader. Do it in a sensitive and inclusive way. Paint them a picture of how things are with the status quo and how things could be so much greater if there was a clearer direction and more leadership from above. It doesn’t have to look weak, indeed if done correctly and at the right time, it can be hugely helpful for the leader and the whole organisation.

Of course there are risks to such an approach. But the consequences we fear most are often loosely held assumptions that we haven’t really considered properly. Yes, we may feel vulnerable challenging authority, but courage is essential in this ever-changing and ambiguous world. And ultimately, if we are true to ourselves things tend to turn out for the best. The liberation that can come with that is hugely empowering.

Finally, remember that this cuts both ways! Your direct reports may have frustrations with how you are doing things currently. So respond well when there is a knock on the door and someone has summoned up the courage to give you feedback.  If you would like to learn some more about the development of the right culture and climate for this positive feedback and challenge, you could do worse than to read “Beyond The Familiar” by Professor Patrick Barwise and Sean Meehan. The idea of the “Open Organisation” is discussed here and its importance in developing the right dexterity and capacity in an organisation to respond to a complex and dynamic competitive environment.

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