does bottom-up leadership work?

July 23, 2008 at 10:52 am | Posted in Professional Development | 5 Comments
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Over lunch today, I read an interesting story that talks about how former college football powers Florida State and Miami are both trying to recapture their dominance, and how both are doing it with player-led committees.  The idea is to get players to take responsbility and become an active part of the plan for success.  All sounds great.  But from my personal experience as a college player and a high school coach, it doesn’t seem to work.

When things get to the point where players are forming committees, there is an underlying message there, which is “our leadership is no longer relevant.”  I wish it wasn’t the case, but again, from 5 years of college ball and 13 years of coaching, it almost always seems to fall short of the goal.  Something — and it’s hard to put my finger on just what — but something has gone wrong with the leadership when things like this happen in a way that appears to be a REPLACEMENT FOR, not an COMPLIMENT TO, strong leadership from the top.

The strongest teams I’ve been on, coached, or played against, have had a combination of both, but in every case, it was FAR more tilted to the top-down leadership being the stronger pull of the two.  Within that framework of strong top-down leadership, it was a privilege to be allowed to form a smaller, sub-leadership team to help the cause.  That’s the “compliment to”.  But you never doubted the ultimate source of your teams strength.  Paradoxically, acknowledging that strength actually strengthened the individual players. 

This one has caused me a moment of pause to think about how (if) this concept applies to the business world.  Would be interested in any comments here, publically on the blog, or emailed to me privately.



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  1. I think that a bottom-up and top-down review process of performance can be extremely healthy. But bottom-up ‘leadership’ seems to be an oxymoron. The very definition of leadership implies top-down. How that is implemented – autocratic, democratic etc. will depend on the leader. I can give a couple of strong analogies in English football at the moment if you want to dig deeper into this.

  2. I would love to hear them. Provided, of course, you call it what it is: a SOCCER example! Or at the very least, use the incorrect spelling I sometimes see from you Brits: futbol. We’re actually OK with that one.

  3. Bottom up leadership is not leadership. It is chaos. The inmates are running the asylum. Who supplies the vision for the team? How are decisions getting made? Leadership is not a democratic philosophy. Now, as I read between the lines of the story it looks like players are actually taking on more responsibity for certain things. Responsibility is leadership at a different level. My assistant has responsibility to get things done that I need to be successful in my businss. She leads those activities, however that does not represent “bottom-up” leadership.

  4. I agree with Chasker… ultimately somebody’s gotta be at the top. Back in the day, the “top” was where all the thinking was done and everyone else marched like drones to the decisions made by the top guy. I look at bottom-up leadership as a means of getting more from your people and, as long as they operate within the larger framework defined by the “real” leader, you’ll get farther down the road on the same gallon (or litre) of gas. People want some sense of self-determination and feeling like they have a say in the “how” has a way of waking up creative processes that are normally dormant until the weekend. All of that said, the true leader should still exercise the right to say, “no”. Delegate that option and you may as well go home.

  5. all good points. I think the thing that got me about the football article was that I lived through that exact scenario as a player and coach. As a player, it was a real confidence crisis in our staff due to some changes that had been made. Was a tough year, and we felt like they gave up on us. As a coach, I tried to implement leadership committees only to realize I was shirking my responsibility during a tough season and asking them to do things that I needed to model personally. When things were going well, as was pointed out a few times above, it is a privilege to contribute to the strong leadership already being exercised.

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