Top-down and bottom-up leadership are often presented as incompatible choices. Advocates of each will tell you why their way works well and the other is a disaster.
But when we stop to think, all good leaders know that life is never a simple choice between two options. So what’s going on here? Do we really need to choose between top-down and bottom-up leadership? And if not, what’s the alternative?
The Rise of Bottom-up Leadership
As an idea, bottom-up leadership emerged from egalitarian ideals that gripped the western world in the 20th century. It emphasizes participation, drawing upon all that’s best in your employees. It’s an idea that’s been around for over a generation, but is often presented as something new. Advocates would argue that this is because others have failed to learn its valuable lessons.
The strength of bottom-up leadership comes from engagement and tapping into the skills and ideas of employees. By getting many people’s input, it crowd-sources wisdom and information, allowing you to draw on the best ideas. It also gives people a sense of ownership over their work and their workplace, which encourages engagement and a positive working environment.
Google provides the classic example of an organization that listens to employees, famously giving them time to work on projects that matter to them, contributing to the organization’s direction.
The Return of Top-down Leadership
But while bottom-up leadership is often seen as the path of forward thinkers and innovative companies, top-down leadership has always remained important in practice, and is seeing an ideological resurgence.
Reflection on the career of Steve Jobs has brought attention to the benefits of this style. Top-down leadership is about setting a clear, sometimes innovative direction. Jobs famously directed the technology market through products and design choices that were Apple’s own, rather than listening to focus groups or following existing trends. This led to one of the most successful companies and widely recognized brands in the world.
Top-down leadership, when properly applied, provides a clear sense of direction and style, one that can be lost in a mass of opinions and the compromises that come from them.
Choosing Your Own Leadership
While top-down and bottom-up leadership are very different approaches, they aren’t absolutes. There is space to use both in the same organization at the same time, because the usefulness of each depends upon its context.
As a leader, you have been chosen to provide innovation and a sense of direction to your company. This is top-down leadership, defining the goals and ensuring that they are kept in mind. But that doesn’t mean that you have to direct every detail from the top down. To do so is usually harmful, as the same position that gives you the opportunity to see the best direction prevents you from seeing the detail on the ground.
So set the parameters for your organization from the top down – its purpose, its style, what sort of brand you want to be. Use that as the boundaries within which bottom-up decisions will be made.
Setting these parameters needn’t be restrictive. Most people are at their most creative when they have boundaries to work with and ideas to riff off. If, like Steve Jobs, you have ideas for unprecedented products, you can still involve staff in deciding how to deliver them. You may know that you want a dynamic and caring office culture, but your employees can decide how to make that happen. Letting them do so taps into their ideas and ensures their engagement.
In the real world, leadership involves drawing both from the top and from the bottom. Don’t be tricked by extremists into forgetting that. Choose your own path, with the mix of top-down and bottom-up that suits you.