5 Ways to Avoid Top-Down Leadership


When my husband is sharing a story, I tend to drive him crazy. Before he's got half the story out, I'm asking questions that he's about to answer. Curiosity is an excellent quality in a conversation, but interruption? Not so much.

Me, to myself.

Still, I don't think we ask enough questions. Skeptics and disruptors are not usually encouraged to attend all the decision making meetings (from personal experience). Growing up, asking an authority figure anything, was about as close to rebellion as a good southern gal can get, and if I had a nickel for every time I heard "curiosity killed the cat", well, I'd be wearing more expensive shoes, sister.

Many classrooms, organizations, churches, political structures, and societal systems frown upon anything that might slow down the mission, or poke holes in the vision, strategy or theory. I've been guilty of this as well, when I have chosen not to slow down, in order to ask questions of, or listen to, the very people my decisions would affect. It's easier to keep it moving, when we don't have to wait on anyone, and it's definitely easier to lead from the top of a pyramid, than from within a circle.

Circles are reciprocal and complex. You can see people, and there's no where to hide. Circles get tense, especially if the leadership is shared across a breadth of culture, experience, ethnicity and age, but tension is not a problem to be solved; it's a normal experience in leadership. The more available we are, and the more safe space we create for people to work through tension, the greater our capacity to lead diverse, equitable teams of people, and to build a place where transparent, collaborative practices distribute power in a fuller, more equal opportunity based approach to leadership. The top-down method of leading also creates tension, because it's easier to create singular focuses, group think and "water cooler talk" (because people will still find ways to express concerns, fears and disagreements). It's also easier to lose sustainable practices and really great people.

John Steinback said, “I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.”

I wonder too. Leading people is brave. Opening our lives, homes, history, and offering ourselves to others, is fulfilling, invigorating, risky, and painful sometimes. We fail, but we fail forward, and as Maya Angelou said, "Do the best you can, until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."

As we press on towards our goals as leaders, it is critical for us to remain grounded in reality, and in relationship with people.

I’d like to offer you five ways to avoid top-down leadership on your teams:

Be curious.

As a mobilizer, I completely understand getting the job done. At the same time, I want to grow in knowing people, just to know them. Yes, when we lead teams, we need each other to push the vision forward, and also, it is painfully obvious when someone is valued solely for what they do. Laughing together, eating together, talking about something other than the end goal can lead to deeper levels of relationship, and help people feel valued for who they are. You can be “all in” and care about people too! Talk about relevant topics. (Hi 2018, no shortage there!) Poke holes in theories. Have heated strategy discussions (that don't center on you). Foster diverse thinking and perspectives. Listen to connect, not to reply, correct or fix. Ask permission to share wisdom, or a fresh perspective. Ask questions - be genuinely curious.

Be releasing.

The whole life of a person matters. Their dreams and desires are important, so as you get to know the people you lead; decide that you want them to fulfill the purpose for which they were created, more than you want them to fulfill yours. Draw out their true potential; see what could be, not just what is. Hold people accountable to their responsibilities, of course, while also encouraging them to dream bigger than the box they're in. Let folks out dream, think, execute you. (Yes, please. If we were good at everything, we wouldn't need a team. But, we're not, so, release.) Lead with vision and passion; inspire others, who will then inspire others. When we are generous with what we have been given, both in people and resources, there will be a return on that investment. The turnaround will take longer than we hope, but generosity begets generosity. Keep releasing, because ain't nobody got time for controlling, scarcity-minded leadership.

Be forgiving.

Life is messy, and no one is exempt from issues, problems and pain, that naturally bleed over into our pursuits and decisions in our career, ministry, and relationships. Transitions happen — some are great; some are not great. Setbacks can feel discouraging. Poor decisions can impact the end goal. Forgive. Stay in relationship whenever you can. If you are a person of faith, you never know how the mercy you extend to someone can lead him or her closer to God. And if you allow it, forgiving offenses can make you a more compassionate, loving person, as well. Hold people accountable, and make the tough calls when you need to, because the team is counting on you to lead in health, strength, and safety. Be forgiving, to keep your mind sober, free from bitterness, jealousy and resentment. As they say, "more is caught than taught", so build a culture where people do what needs to be done, where folks don't major on minors, where it's okay to make mistakes, where consequences are appropriate to circumstances, where reconciliation, and transformation is possible.

Be mindful.

Consider their life, their context, and their struggles as you lead. Pray for them. On tough weeks, if it is possible for you (or someone on your team), call them. Show up. Encourage them. If you are a church leader, please remember that volunteers do not work for you. They are offering their time unto God, so treat them as people made in His image, not as your personal employees. The ground is level at the foot of the cross and the leader’s position is to come under others in order to lift them up. When we find ourselves lording over others, or discover kindness is no longer on our tongue, it’s time to sit before Jesus and say, “Help.” And whatever role you have in leadership, your job is to serve. People do not exist just to get our job done, or to get us to the goal. Be mindful of the big, beautiful, difficult life people are living, and thank them for helping to build your dream.

Be respectful.

Respect the age, wisdom, time, gender, ethnicity, experience and culture of your people. It is my pet peeve when I see a young leader speak to someone ten, twenty or thirty years their senior, in a condescending, commanding way. Or when an older leader disregards someone's perspective or ideas because they are young. Or when the only woman in the room courageously decides to speak, and she is shot down, or laughed at. Or when a person of color is expected to assimilate rather than participate in the decision by bringing their unique voice to the team. Be a respectful leader. Say sorry. Remove barriers. Break ceilings. Delegate; don't dump. Encourage and champion. Coach and develop. Do not compromise your integrity. Welcome every person to do what you hired them to do. Hold the tension of leading people and getting the heck out of their way.

You manage things; you lead people. —Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

I'm still learning to create circles, and dismantle the pyramid thinking in my own life. Controlling and avoiding are much easier than serving and leading. What do you struggle with in leadership? I'd love to hear from you!