Top Down Leadership Does Work, If You're Stuck in the Industrial Age

Power and control, positional authority -- we're all familiar with autocratic leadership styles as these approaches have been around for centuries. And top-down, hierarchical leadership styles can still be effective for managing an organization, especially those that mass-produce specific products. Think about it: what would a company be like without top-down leadership to set goals and priorities, direct resources and operations, plan strategies, and make sure those strategies are being implemented? So it does work.

Here's where it gets sketchy...

When left to their own devices under stress, these hammer-dropping leaders will lack the emotional intelligence to influence those they lead. They become engulfed in their own agendas and bravado by demanding, insisting and expecting something to go their way, while losing the respect of the very teams they lead along the way.

When the expectations of top-down leadership become unrealistic, the workplace turns into a pressure cooker, and employees no longer feel safe to speak up. And when this happens, the Achilles Heel of top-down leadership is exposed.

The results I have personally witnessed in past companies from such leaders have led to conflict, low team or company morale, and painfully expensive cycles of turnover that took months of recovery.

That reminds me of a survey I conducted on LinkedIn, where I asked several groups and received hundreds of responses to the question, “What is the ONE mistake leaders make more frequently than others?”

The second most frequent answer I found was the “mistake” of leading from a position of power or ego. In one sense, hubris was the cause of much conflict and grief.  As one respondent succinctly put it:

Intellectual arrogance is like a termite to some leaders and networks.

In another sense articulated in the responses, "know it all's" who think they have the best ideas (or take credit for the ideas of others), hoard information, and use it to wield power or control suck the life out of teams.

Some respondents also expressed disdain over leaders unfit to lead, and blamed the hiring decision-makers who place such leaders in those positions.

I also captured responses about the leader who says "Do as I say and not as I do" -- an attitude, according to some that some bosses take on when they reach that point in their career progression. It assumes a kind of superiority over their leadership role, where they indiscriminately use it to gain power and prestige.

The general theme in the responses pointed to a lack of humility in leaders – their inability to be wrong, and not handling being wrong well.

The reality is, humble leaders will act in a much different way, and still get results and move the company forward. When a humble leader’s tribe feels valued, respected, encouraged, and appreciated for the work they do as real human beings with a brain, those entrusted under their care will gladly walk the extra mile to get the job done. There's discretionary effort there. When the opposite is true, you will see fingers pointing to top-down leadership as the source of their unhappiness.

What gets lost with the top-down approach as pressure increases from unrealistic expectations are things like:

  • mutual respect
  • trustworthy relationships
  • transparency
  • candor in meetings
  • input and buy-in from workers about their work, about what works, and what doesn't.
  • employee engagement and satisfaction
  • emotional safety

If you feel stuck in your top-down leadership style, the first place to start is with yourself.

Make a mindful decision today to create a different approach and way of being for your way of leading. My advice? Adopt an inside-out (not a top-down), approach that will call you to inspire others to be great. We call this servant leadership.

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