In management circles, leadership tends to get reduced to two opposing models: You’re either a traditional top-down leader who believes in the organizing power of clear chains of command, or you’re a collaborative, bottom-up leader who puts more faith in flat organizations, holocracies, and approaches that put leaders in more of a facilitator role. Advocates of either approach will tell you why theirs works best, and why the alternative is a disaster.
But a mark of good leadership is knowing that few complex challenges ever come down to just choosing between two simple options. The truth is that top-down and bottom-up leadership aren’t mutually exclusive. But the alternative isn’t always so easy to find.
As an idea, bottom-up leadership emerged from the egalitarian ideals that swept the Western world in the 20th century. It emphasizes participation as a way of drawing on all the skills and knowledge an organization’s employees have to offer.
Even though the roots of those ideas have been around for over a generation, bottom-up leadership approaches are often presented as something new. And advocates tend to argue that we’ve so far failed to learn its valuable lessons.
To be sure, bottom-up leadership has its advantages. By getting many people’s input, it crowdsources wisdom and information, allowing you to draw on the best ideas that are out there, rather than just dictating a certain task for someone to perform. It also gives people a sense of ownership over their work and workplace, which boosts engagement and motivation.
But while bottom-up leadership is often framed as the path toward innovation, top-down approaches have always remained important in practice and may even be seeing an ideological resurgence.
Top-down leadership is about setting a clear direction–one that doesn’t always value everyone’s input equally. Steve Jobs, for instance, famously directed the consumer tech market through singular products and design choices that were Apple’s own, rarely ever listening to focus groups or chasing existing trends. This led to one of the most successful companies and widely recognized brands in the world.
And while Jobs’s personal leadership style has been criticized, his effectiveness in many ways complicates the claim that collaborative, bottom-up approaches always lead to the most innovative strategies. Sometimes it takes a strong, visionary leader to map a clear sense of direction that might otherwise get lost in a mass of opinions that could muddy or compromise it.
But the truth is that leaders can–and probably should–have it both ways. Neither top-down nor bottom-up leadership work well consistently if they’re seen as absolutes. There’s usually room for both within a single organization at the same time. The reason is simple: The usefulness of either approach depends on what you’re trying to achieve.
Picking the right approach is a leadership challenge in its own right. As a leader, you’ve been chosen to guide your team or organization as best you can. Fundamentally, that responsibility is a matter of top-down leadership–defining the goals and ensuring everyone keeps them in mind.
But when it comes to execution, that doesn’t mean you have to direct every detail from the top down. In fact, that’s usually harmful; the same position that gives you the opportunity to see the best direction to take is often the one that prevents you from seeing everything through on the ground.
So set the parameters for your organization from the top–your purpose, goals, design, the sort of brand you want to be, etc. Then use those parameters to frame the bottom-up decisions. What’s more, the parameters needn’t be restrictive. Most people are at their most creative when they have boundaries to work within and ideas to riff on.
If, like Jobs, you have ideas for innovative new products, you can still involve a wide range of your staff in deciding how to deliver them. You may know that you want a dynamic and supportive work culture, yet at the same time let your employees decide how best to make that happen. Tap into their ideas, and earn their commitment and engagement.
In the real world, leadership is messier than picking between two countervailing philosophies. Don’t be fooled by management gurus who’d prefer you to ignore that. Choose the path that best suits you and your organization’s goals–even if it’s a mixed map.