Top Down Leadership vs Bottom Up Leadership

Category: Empathy, Leadership
Last Updated: 03 Aug 2021
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Top down leadership has in many ways been the cultural gnome in terms of leadership styles for probably the longest time in history Likert termed it Exploitive authoritative. “In this style, the leader has a low concern for people and uses such methods as threats and other fear-based methods to achieve conformance. Communication is almost entirely downwards and the psychologically distant concerns of people are ignored.  Top down leadership has had a deep impact and so much intertwined with human culture that it is deemed to be simply the natural form of leadership. There are many other forms of leadership styles being nurtured so as to adapt with cultural changes and views on leadership roles, not to say they are any lesser but top down and bottom up were at both extremes of the leadership spectrum hence choosing to focus on the two.

The structure of most organizations is based on an autocratic hierarchy that is based on the notion that the ‘workers’ need to be very closely supervised by those in ‘management’. In the distant past there may have been some truth to this assertion, however, in today’s world it is becoming increasingly spurious. Yet after a whole heap of culture change initiatives carried out in many organizations very little positive change has occurred. The reason is clear to see as the hierarchy is naturally committed to retaining the status quo between the roles of those called ‘bosses’ from those labeled the ‘workers’. Bottom-up leadership however “occurs when employees become innovative and questioning, making suggestions and pushing boundaries. “Thought leadership” is similar, although it is more about championing new ideas than managing people or helping a group achieve a goal. However, in both cases, the leadership can be directed upward, and it ends once senior managers accept the proposed ideas. ”

The concept of bottom up leadership requires a person to think outside of the box because it challenges mainstream beliefs and ideologies as regards to leadership roles. There is an oriental saying that states “cup would have to be poured out to allow room for more a filled”. Which implies putting aside of one’s wisdom so as to learn new material. Jaap characterization of a bottom up leader is that “An effective leader is considered to be someone who has the ability to share a compelling vision of a desirable outcome, create the environment in which a group of ndividuals work as a collaborative team focused on turning the vision into a reality”. For most people the bottom up concept is relatively not applied as it really should due to the fact that people who are in leadership roles tend to have insecurities if more flexibility were to be offered to employees. The leaders deem that people would in actuality develop some form of negligence to those that are in position of authority.

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Take for instance the anti government protests that developed all across the Middle East, these protests are as a result of people who are frustrated by the top down leadership style being carried out by their leaders. Leadership as it was in these Arab nations was flowing only on a downstream when it came to the issue of communication, for the people’s concerns were being met by brutal force which included jail term and death in some cases to any person that seemed to offer an alternative to the top down leadership that was in place.

The western world has a strong belief for equal rights for all and most importantly the right for all to live a fulfilled life and it is quite apparent as the Arabs began questioning for these same rights their leaders who had their heads buried under the sand were under the assumption that their usual scare tactics would quench the flames of revolution. However, these were not the usual times in Arab nations, the revolutionary flames burn on rampantly towards the leaders who have in all actuality failed to lead their nations due to the fact that they led as though they had eternity to rule, which was the greatest mistake to have done.

They failed to observe the change in tide as the world around them continued to evolve, more and more people getting connected via internet. Social media had set up stage for people to voice their concerns as to what directions their leaders were getting them to travel, their lack of empathy and lost track of reality only looking for more ways and means to enlarge their bank accounts, assets and investments at the cost of people. Had the approach been taken on a bottom up approach the outcome would definitely have been different due to the fact they would have had empathy and understanding for a bottom up leader is as follows.

The leader is part of the team and accepts that on occasions other members of the team may in fact take on the leadership role because they have the necessary capabilities to deal with particular situations more so than the nominated leader. The working environment is based on trust and respect for each other and the language is about our “leader, colleagues, team, accountability, achievement, success, and celebration” rather than “boss, staff, levels, roles, responsibility, remuneration, and appraisal”.

There is a constant sharing of information between the team members and sincere dialogue about issues that may be contentious because colleagues have different perspectives and expectations. By transparently dialoguing these and all other issues the best solution is more likely to emerge because the team is able to make the tough call when necessary. They tend to avoid meetings and discussions based on consensus as they know from experience that this process tend to produce a solution driven by the lowest common denominator and frequently not what is needed by the organization. Par7 Jaap 2008) Not wanting to seem all too pessimistic towards top down leadership, there are certain areas such as the military organizations or police force where top down leadership is and strongly believe will continue to be employed in such areas to the unforeseeable future because the whole system is heavily based upon order. The military organizations in America are applaud able and should be exemplary for the rest of the world military to emulate, not to be deemed as a war fanatics’ but rather as an organization that understands what entails protecting its citizens.

Leadership however is what directs them to war, peace, rescue missions etc for that is typical for those who are disciplined to follow top down leadership. “The whole system tends to absorb its people in focusing on rules and procedures designed to keep everyone in their appropriate place doing exactly what each tribe dictates its members should be doing. Most organizational language is about reinforcing the master/servant or parent/child relationship that appears to be an essential part of the military type of hierarchy“.

Keeping this in mind we also have to understand that the discipline they have did not just appear out of nowhere, they had to undergo rigorous training in order to be transformed into a command structured person. Rivers stated in his research There is little question that one of the chief causes of the great prevalence of nervous disorders in the war is that vast numbers of men have been called upon to endure hardships and dangers of unprecedented severity with a quite insufficient training.

There is equally little doubt that the special nature of the duties involved in trench warfare has taken a large part in determining the great frequency of neurosis. (Rivers 1920) An argument that a critic would say is that Rivers wrote the book almost a century back, technological advancements have been made in leaps and bounds to outweigh nervous disorders and the two to three month training period is very much sufficient.

In the article The emotional effects of war T, Stan states “Some veterans of past wars have recovered from their traumatic experience with the right care, but what we need to ask ourselves is how we can protect them from mental trauma before they are even sent to fight, as opposed to treating their symptoms once the deep psychological damage has already been done“. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter remains to date that there are soldiers that suffer psychologically as a result of doing what their work requires, which is top down leadership at its raw definition.

These military examples indicate that as much as human beings have made top down form of leadership a reality it can be extremely costly because war is not quite human nature otherwise there would not be reports of psychological issues as a result of following orders to the bitter end “The emotional effects of war on soldiers very often hinders their future achievements too as they find it impossible to imagine or plan. ” (Stan. By majorly focusing on the psychological effects of extreme top down leadership one can deduce that as a result of exposing human natural emotions through such experiences has daunting and drastic effect that the individual would have to bear on a personal basis that even further affect the social aspect of life and family life. It takes training the human qualities to this image of a soldier to serve further implying how top down leadership does not quite just come naturally but is instilled on a person.

The approach towards bottom up leadership simply put emphasis on doing what human beings do best which are being social creatures that we are. Human beings generally have more tendencies to show concern for just about anyone in distress disregarding all other factors such as race, nationality, etc. bottom up leadership works to build on the basis of establishing social relationship as its core foundations because people are really the most important asset any institution or organization could possibly have.

Focusing on who people are as human beings develop empathy on the part of a leader and people tend to give more effort when they feel people actually do care and understand where they are coming from. “The emotional intelligent professional is a master of building relationships, which provide the foundation for developing the influence required to make things happen. To become a master yourself you must develop your emotional intelligence and learn. (Wall, 2008, p37) In life it has become apparent that common sense in most cases is not quite common for human beings have invested great time and effort towards scientific research as to how better efficient leadership could be achieved and the human factor was just but an element on the production line where efficiency of workers has and always been based on individual output with little or no attention to the needs of the laborer.

For an organization to be firmly established to withstand the tides of change, greater emphasis should be made in the areas of relationship development as being the major component in the structural base. “As we facilitate organizational change efforts for client companies, we find it helpful to use a few nautical metaphors to remind them that they can’t control the winds or seas of change but they can adjust their sails” (Sipe & Frick 2009, p142). With the development of social media a much broader avenue has been made when it comes to unifying people bent on same beliefs and course of actions.

The Middle East crisis is the emancipation of a top down form of governance at its wits end where fear tactics no longer played the factor, for people were united in common bond for social change as they deemed injustice was being played against their God given rights to freedom. The protesters dropped all they were doing, businesses, government; financial institutions and so on were all brought to a halt because the nation’s work force saw that it could no longer be business as usual when their leaders have no real concern for their needs.

Now you may ask “what has this to do with culture change in organizations”. My response would be to say “quite a lot” as the reasons the various regimes fight to retain the status quo is a mirror image of what goes on in organizations. They may not use armed weapons but they do tend to make significant use of traditional, psychological and physical methods to quell any imminent revolt by employees. Jaap, T (par2 June 2011).

Creativity is an essential part of the human nature that fosters new ideals, inventions and venture to greater heights by virtue of imagining beyond the sum of one’s present circumstances. In order to facilitate these qualities individuals have to have a form of freedom that makes it conducive for free flow of knowledge and ideas based on the fact that they no longer see the work they are doing as work but develop a sense of ownership and passion in the roles they have to perform in the organization.

Most organizational leaders would highly appreciate workers that bring enthusiastic views and effort to work for it energizes the whole team. Not only would that develop a healthy working atmosphere but the productivity also will definitely be increased exponentially because everyone would understand that they are valued and all their inputs play a vital role in the operational process.

Many leaders are more than likely going to argue that bottom up leadership could only cause chaos in the work place rather than productivity as a result of everyone having self expression as to how they look at life in the organization. The leaders in most cases forget an important concept that they themselves are called to serve. Rather than leading in a group top down leaders would rather lead ahead of the group which implies egotistic approach on the whole leadership process for the individual leader seeks to gain attention as being the alpha dog of the group.

Bottom up leadership however is focused on developing team spirit in the organization where people unite to tackle the task at hand with clear objectives of getting the job done right and credit is made to the team as a whole. Not only is bottom up leadership a healthy form of leadership style it will in most cases increase employee retention hence ensuring that the organization has committed people on the team which does go a long way in comparison of trying to build passion in people who are disgruntled by leaders that only understand my way or the highway form of mindset

The importance of team development could not be understated, they are what hold organizations together, by professionalizing conflicts in actuality if done well fosters healthy working relationships. Conflicts should not be taken personally and working roles need to be well defined so that those involved have good understanding of their responsibilities as pertaining to the task at hand. As being part of the team one has to be actively involved in the decision making process by adding input so as to take the participatory approach.

While in a team it is also good to remember that when there happens to be problems in the organization it is very likely that 85% percent is as a result of system failure and 15% people A main force behind my thinking is the conviction that a management style from the bottom up, instead of top down is more effective. Main reason for this is that by being stimulating and facilitating people are better equipped to perform their tasks: higher motivation, less stressed and more able to absorb complexity….

I am convinced that if this style of management is in your brain, you have a more tolerating, productive and positive mind set, and one that is based upon trust instead of fear. I am convinced that educating around the globe about this style (instead of the old top-down directive leadership style) will have an amazing impact on more than just how businesses are run. It is about a better human-human interaction. (Par7 De Baar 2008)


  1. Likert, R. (1967). The human organization: Its management and value, New York: McGraw-Hill
  2. Jaap, T (June 2011). Culture change by evolution or revolution. Retrieved from http://bottomupleadership. com/
  3. Jaap, T (May 8 2008). Why is leadership failing? Retrieved from http://bottomupleadership. com/why-is-leadership-failing/
  4. N, Ki-Young &J, Mi-Jin (2008 summer). Bottom- Up Design Leadership as a Strategic Tool. Retrieved from http://www. dmi. org/dmi/html/publications/journal/pdf/08193NAM59. pdf
  5. W, H, R, Rivers (1920). Instinct and the Unconscious. Retrieved from http://en. wikisource. org/wiki/Instinct_and_the_Unconscious/War-Neurosis_and_Military_Training
  6. Jaap, T (may 3 2008) Being a Bottom up Leader. Retrieved from http://bottomupleadership. com/being-a-bottomup-leader/
  7. T, Stan. The emotional effects of war on soldiers. Retrieved from http://www. healthguidance. org/entry/11261/1/The-Emotional-Effects-of-War-on-Soldiers. html
  8. B, Wall (2008). Working Relationships, Mountain view, CA: Davies Black Publishing 37.
  9. J, Sipe & D, Frick (2009) Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership. NY/ Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press 142.
  10. De Baar, B (2008). Bottoms Up: Leadership style for a better world. Retrieved from http://www. basdebaar. com/bottoms-up-leadership-style-for-a-better-world-168. html

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Top Down Leadership vs Bottom Up Leadership. (2018, Jul 15). Retrieved from

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