Bottom-up Leadership


Bottom-up leadershipTraditional leadership is top-down - a position in a hierarchy, an ongoing role with responsibility for people. Bottom-up leadership is a one-off act of influence, such as when an employee convinces management to adopt a new product idea.

Leadership shown bottom up is like green leadership. It promotes a better way by challenging others to think differently.Bottom up leadership is different from informal leadership which is about an employee being the informal positional leader. An informal leader takes charge of a team and directs their efforts toward a goal. Bottom-up leaders, like green leaders, simply promote a better way. They sell the tickets for a journey; they leave it to others to get there on their own.

This is how green leadership works. A lone outsider challenges energy use in government, business and communities and has a leadership impact when the target audiences change their practices. This is how Martin Luther King, Jr. showed leadership too. He challenged the status quo treatment of African Americans and succeeded in changing the attitudes of the general public and several levels of government. Note that this has nothing to do with taking charge of anyone.

Such leadership can be defined as: showing the way for others either by example or by promoting a new direction.

Any organization that depends on rapid innovation needs all employees to show leadership and the lower you are in the pecking order the more your leadership needs to be directed up the line.

Bottom-up leadership is similar to thought leadership in knowledge intensive businesses. Leadership shown by front-line employees is critical in an age that depends on innovation for business success. It comes from what Richard Florida calls the "creative class" - employees who work more with their heads than their hands.

Showing leadership bottom-up requires, first and foremost, great content. The next requirement is the courage to promote new ideas to management. A bottom-up leader needs sufficient passion, along with great content, to have a leadership impact on management. This is not an ongoing role with responsibility for people. Emotional intelligence may be nice to have but it isn't essential if the bottom-up leader has great content and a reasonable amount of passion to promote it. All employees can show this kind of leadership as a one-off act, even on small changes to everyday work practices.

Leadership as influence

If leadership is an influence process, it simply influences people to think or act differently. This doesn't mean that ALL forms of influence count as leadership. Selling, coercion, bribery, manipulation don't count. Nor does persuading your kids to eat their vegetables. Leadership occurs in "groups" that are trying to achieve similar aims or that share common values.

A group, in which leadership is shown, doesn't have to work together though. All people in the world who value respecting the environment can be considered a group in the sense that they share similar values. A green leader can show leadership in this group without actually working with, or even knowing, many of the people who choose to follow. The point here is to see how leadership can be shown without being in charge of those who follow.

How bottom-up leadership works

Whenever you persuade management to adopt a new product or better process, you have shown leadership bottom-up. You clearly don't take charge of the senior management team in doing so and they wouldn't recognize you as their informal leader.

Bottom-up leadership, like that shown by green leaders, is not a role but a one-off impact. But then a lot of kinds of influence work this way too. Selling is an impact. When you persuade your kids to eat their vegetables, you stop once they start eating them. Hence, such influence is a discrete event or impact, in the same sense in which any physical object makes an impact on another when it collides with the other.

There is no such thing as leadership style when leadership is shown as a one-off impact. Instead, what we have is influencing style and this can range from a hard-hitting factual argument or business case. Or it can be a stirring emotional pitch that inspires people to act differently.

Where do you want to go from here?

Want to read more on the relationship between vision and leadership? If leadership isn't just an influence process, then it's a role in a hierarchy, but this is biologically primitive. See Primitive Leadership for more on this topic. For more discussion of how leadership can work as influence, see Bottom-up Leadership and Organic Leadership.

For more unconventional thinking on leadership see our sister site LEAD2XL