The Importance of Leading Up

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Peter Dell’Accio
  • 436th Communications Squadron commander

When I arrived at Dover for my command tour, I was coming off a year as an instructor at Squadron Officer School, followed by a year as a student at Air Command and Staff College, where I was introduced to a concept called meta-leadership. The concept was originally developed at Harvard and is presented in many different variations. The version I was introduced to is represented by four arrows pointing up, down, left and right to represent the concepts of leading up, down, across and beyond.

Leading down is most familiar: an individual is appointed to a formal leadership position and responsible for providing guidance and direction to the individuals he or she has authority over. As both leaders and followers, regardless of rank or position, we are all familiar with this leadership paradigm.  Leading across refers to the idea of leading ones’ peers, formally or informally, and we can see examples of this from our Airmen every day. Leading beyond is the impact individuals have outside of their immediate organizations. When I receive unsolicited feedback from customers across the base about the professionalism, customer service and expertise of the men and women of the 436th Communications Squadron that shows they have made a positive impression about the unit, that is leading beyond. 

We work in a hierarchical structure, and leading up is exactly what it sounds like: influencing the layers above you. This can seem like a pipe dream to some, especially those who are younger in age, rank, experience, or time in their unit. When I speak with Airmen as they come into the squadron, I mention that I was Airman Basic Dell’Accio when I arrived at my first duty station, so I truly understand how it feels to think no one would listen to me because of my rank or lack of experience in the Air Force.  I try to ensure all members realize that they have a voice and can make an impact.

In the 436th CS, we have a new mascot, morale patch and squadron chant to rally behind and show off our squadron pride, which is the result of the persistence and hard work of some of our newest Airmen who have already made a lasting impact on the unit. The inputs of our enlisted, officer and civilian Airmen have directly influenced how I have allocated resources, executed our mission and addressed issues within the unit. One airman first class established an immersion program for new Airmen to improve connectedness and create a shared understanding of the diverse functions we have in the unit. And our Integrated Resiliency Team, again led by some of our youngest Airmen, is providing events to the squadron to ensure discussions on topics like race relations and resiliency become part of our culture.

I am certain we can all find examples of leading up in our units. As a squadron commander, I know I have made an impact at organizational levels above me, but at this point in my career, it almost comes with the job by default. When I lead up, it is setting a good example at best. When our young Airmen do it, it is inspirational.