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Serving Up Is Not Sucking Up

June 1, 2021
As he launched into the most important part of his presentation, the regional VP’s microphone started having problems. This was an important presentation from one of the most senior people […]

As he launched into the most important part of his presentation, the regional VP’s microphone started having problems. This was an important presentation from one of the most senior people at my company. There were only 3 regions, and each had only 1 VP who answered directly to the C-suite. In the audience was that entire C-suite, as well as the 2 other regional VPs and every member of their executive teams. And this guy sounded like a wireless call cutting in and out. None of us could understand him.

Thank you … the most important … if you consider last year’s … for growth …

As a regional director, my boss was one of the other regional VPs, and all I could think at first was thank the lord it wasn’t him presenting. But before that thought turned into any action on my part to help, the regional director who served the VP on stage jumped up out of his seat, ran to the AV team, and grabbed a new mic so his boss could continue his speech. The whole exchange took only minutes.

While all this was happening, the person next to me nudged my arm and whispered, "Look at that suck-up. His daddy’s mic is not working, so he kisses his ass so fast that he gets him a new mic before the AV team does." I didn’t respond, but as the mic was being wired up he continued: "Man, if my VP’s mic does not work, he can get his own new mic. He’s a grown man. I’m not here to wipe his nose."

No he wasn’t. Neither was I. Neither was the regional director whose VP was quickly back on the horse and riding through his presentation. Only one of us, however, saw what the regional director did as sucking up, not serving up. And that wasn’t me.


Listen, I get it. Perception is reality and there is a fine line between sucking up and serving up. But even if the action is the same, sucking up and serving up could not be more different.

Sucking up, or ass-kissing, is a selfish act of manipulation meant to take advantage or mislead someone. Sucking up is wiping someone’s nose – a gesture to make oneself feel needed and recognized by somebody and/or as a means to get something else. Whatever the act, it’s never about kindness.  There’s always a hidden agenda.

Serving up is a selfless act of support for your boss and the vision and direction of the organization, no questions asked. It’s about respect, not recognition or feeling wanted, and never about manipulation and hidden agendas. 

If you are in a situation where someone calls you a suck-up, ask yourself: Are you genuine or insincere? Are you being gracious and respectful to those you answer to, not from a position of weakness, but from a position of power in serving them to better lead your team and serve the company as a whole? If so, then the people who serve you will have the same respect for you, your bosses, and your company. They will never see you as a suck-up. Suck-ups never serve anyone genuinely and never hesitate to sacrifice those not in a position of power to improve their stature. This makes them not only less likable and less desirable employees but also untrustworthy. If you are serving up, doing what it takes to work hard and respectfully to make you, your boss, your team, or anyone important to your professional and personal life look good, be better, solve problems, and grow, then keep doing it. You will find recognition and reward without asking for it.

Now, does that mean that when you serve up you can’t try to align the organization’s goals with your own or ask questions about how to do what the company needs you to do? Of course not. It only means that serving up starts from a place of positive intent and not blaming anyone or anything for your problems. Those who call you a suck-up for that are almost always jealous of you and how your career flourishes as you lead with humility and a great desire to achieve. The irony is that they would act in the same way if given a second chance! But they would not reap the same rewards even if they did because their motives would be insincere and viewed suspiciously.

Food for Thought from Our 2022 ICT Visionaries

In my 15 years in corporate America, I got promoted for results, not being a yes-man. While I kept moving up in the organization, building bigger and better te4ams that delivered results and made my bosses look good, those leaders and team members who call me a suck-up left the company, struggled to keep steady jobs, and were often miserable. And boy do those people know how to hold grudge; some of those people would still call me a cusk-up today! Fifteen years after I left a job people have told that so-and-so who got passed over my promotion heard my name and said the same things about me that I heard back then: "The only reason he got the job is because he sucked up to the bosses."

These people don’t get what it means as a leader in the middle to serve up. Those who learn to serve up understand their value but have the ability to live humbly. The others who reject its premise are like that guy next to me at the corporate meeting. Let’s call him Mr. Bitterman.

…He felt for years that he was overlooked for promotions. That he was better and smarter than everyone else. He wasn’t, of course, but Bitterman did have all the skills and knowledge needed to accomplish great things. He simply lacked the desire and humility to serve up to success. …

For the 2 years following that meeting Bitterman changed bosses several times. Each boss like what they saw on paper but found him difficult to work with in the end. He complained about other and insisted he deserved more right up to the day he was fired.

As for the regional director who grabbed the new mic? He continued to excel in our company until he took the opportunity to start his own company – with the blessing and help of his VP! He found success at the top and is now making 10 times what he made as a leader in the middle. All because that regional manager understood one basic fact: You get paid to serve and help those you call boss.


We’ve all been in this position: Your boss gives you a direction or delivers a message about a change that you do not agree with and that will seemingly affect you negatively. You think your boss is ill-informed, does not really understand the business, and just might be crazy. This leads to feelings of confusion, anger, fear, distrust, and unhappiness.  Or all of the above.


Those are all honest reaction. What happens next depends on your mindset. Those with the wrong mindset usually fall into 3 categories.

Category 1. "Defend Up, Protect Down" leaders have the mindset to reaffirm their need to be correct and complains constantly to the people they serve. They fear taking action and suffer from analysis paralysis. When they do act, (if the do), it is often tentative and lacks commitment, which translates to similar actions from the team. Thus, every action a leader with this mind-set takes has the potential to undermine their company’s and leaders’ direction.

Category 2. "Demand Down Suck-Ups" are a worse version of those in group 1. They try to be good soldiers, saying things like, "Whether we agree or not does not matter. It is what it is, and we are going to line up." They then tell their boss how awesome everyone thinks the plan is and believes in it 100%. Although that might sound like demanding down and buy-in in a military fake-it-until-you-make-it kind of way, these leaders still undermine their bosses and the company direction because they actually lack belief in the company’s decision. They’re just doing what they’re told. This is not a lower-level leader in the middle issue. As one senior manager told me, "I am the senior VP by title, but really I am just a glorified frontline manager, because I just do what I am told."

Category 3. "Defend Up Suck-Ups" have the worst mindset of all: They tell their employees that they don’t agree with the decisions at the top and that they’re wrong. They blame upper management or the company in general for these supposedly bad decisions and side with the employees, painting all of them – including the leader — as victims.

Don’t play the victim. Serve up. And remember: Serving up does not mean leading with no questions asked. When you do things or follow direction you don’t agree with or understand never ask questions to understand, you do what every company fears most: check the box. You are sucking up to the direction, no questions asked. You are being a yes-man or a yew-woman instead of a how-person who faces those feeling of confusion, anger, fear, distrust, and unhappiness, resists questioning the direction, and then asks good questions about how the company sees things being implemented.  This not only shifts your mind-set but also your perspective.

In Part 2 of this series, you’ll learn how to change your perspective and to challenge your assumptions, and learn when your belief determine the action.

NOTE: This article contains excerpt from Jamail’s book Serve Up and Coach Down: Mastering the Middle and Both Sides of Leadership.

About the Author: Nathan Jamail is president of the Jamail Development Group, and author of 4 best-selling books including his newest release Serve Up & Coach Down. An expert in organizational leadership, Nathan has spent the last 15+ years coaching top executives and teaching thousands of leaders around the world on Leadership, employee coaching, selling skills, and cultural development. Nathan’s clients span across all industries from technology, financial services, military, manufacturing, hospitality, and many more. For more information, visit or follow on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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