Leading From the Bottom Up | Your Guide to Bringing out the Best in Others

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While perusing hundreds of quotes about leadership, I came across three that I thought were particularly incisive:

“What I have learned is that people become motivated when you guide them to the source of their own power and when you make heroes out of employees who personify what you want to see in the organization.” ~ Anita Roddick

“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” ~ Ronald Reagan

“Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Do they strike a chord with you, too? If so, there’s a good chance you’re in tune with the underpinnings of “bottom-up” leadership.

Each of these quotes captures the essence of this leadership style, which is built on a continuous process of identifying and nurturing individual strengths through a coequal partnership. Simply put, bottom-up leadership is primarily about bringing out the best in others.

If you’ve ever wondered about your own leadership potential, you may consider how a bottom-up approach can inform your understanding. Whether you’re a project manager, a team leader, or simply a curious reader, continue on to learn about the four principles of bottom-up leadership—and how to apply them to your work.

1. Everyone starts with an “A”

Remember, you can show leadership by having standards, without having all the answers.

I had a high school teacher who used to say: “Everyone starts with an ‘A.’” He saw students for their potential and gave us the opportunity to grow into it without feeling boxed in by judgments that may predetermine performance. This mentality is foundational to bottom-up leadership: the assumption that everyone is capable of taking on new challenges. Then, you guide each individual through a process of identifying and actively pushing beyond his or her comfort zone.

In fact, there’s evidence that suggests this approach is conducive to learning. According to the 70-20-10 Model for Learning and Development, 70 percent of learning occurs through new and unfamiliar activities, 20 percent occurs through mentorship, and 10 percent through training.

So, if you want your team to grow and push performance boundaries, you’ll need to practice your ability to trust by encouraging them to take on comfort-zone-busting assignments.

2. Equity and equality aren’t equivalent

People often conflate the terms “equity” and “equality,” even though they’re actually quite different. Equity implies that fairness is achievable through differentiation, whereas equality means treating everyone identically.

Equity is vital to bottom-up leadership: you pay close attention to a person’s strengths, weaknesses, passions, and misgivings, and create an enabling environment around those highly individual circumstances. Your goal should be to cultivate potential through a customized learning and development process. People should feel they’re building on their capabilities and inclinations by taking informed risks—not like they’ve been left without a life vest in uncharted waters.

This requires patience and quiet observation. As a bottom-up leader, you’ll need to first give people the time to show their capabilities and the space to step beyond them.

3. Individual impact matters

In the social-impact world, most of us are passionate about a particular cause or two—or even 20. Being part of an effective, mission-driven organization can therefore be quite motivating. But it doesn’t end here; people generally want to see the distinct value they bring to an organization.

Bottom-up leaders know this and engage staff in conversations about how their roles can evolve to more directly support the mission, fill an operational gap, or build internal capacities. This cultivates their drive to deliver a unique, recognizable contribution and helps staff at all levels to feel a stronger stake in an organization.

Although it can be easy to get bogged down in day-to-day task delivery, it’s important to maintain dialogue that allows staff to see their work in a broader context. Bottom-up leadership requires the ability to take a step back from the grind and reinvigorate day-to-day work with a sense of deeper, personalized meaning.

4. Everyone is an expert

True leaders don’t need to be exceptional in every moment. They’re comfortable hiring and working with people who may, at certain moments, outshine them. Bottom-up leadership requires you to be comfortable deferring to other peoples’ judgement, subject-matter knowledge, and skill sets. In fact, bottom-up leaders sometimes devolve their leadership responsibilities by letting others facilitate meetings, steer projects, or speak on behalf of an organization.

The ability to comfortably let your team lead you shows confidence and pragmatism—and that you’re more interested in getting work done effectively than in proving yourself. Remember, you can show leadership by having standards, without having all the answers.

Getting started

If you’re convinced that bottom-up leadership has merit, there are some clear actions you can take to proactively apply these four principles:

  • Ask all individuals on your team directly if they feel challenged and satisfied. Not everyone will assume they have your support to take on more responsibility, so make it explicit.
  • Encourage staff to create a professional “bucket list” and work with them to pick at least one item on the list to tackle each year.
  • Observe what pace of work enables each person to thrive. Is it multitasking and quick turnaround activities or fewer tasks requiring deep concentration? Then, create a balance that plays to each person’s strengths while accommodating the full spectrum of demands.
  • Be transparent about your equity-based approach to management and ask your team for periodic feedback. This helps to ensure your approach is perceived to be as fair as you intend.
  • Work with your team to answer this question: “What change can we make in this organization as individuals and as a collective?”
  • Update your team on management-level conversations. If information isn’t confidential, share it and encourage reflection and dialogue about how staff can contribute.
  • Pay attention to how much time you spend talking versus listening, making it standard practice to choose dialogue over monologue.
  • Ask your team for advice when you face a challenge.
  • And always remember that bottom-up leaders are more inclined to offer guidance than give orders, to communicate a vision but not dictate how to achieve it, and to admit they don’t have a monopoly on creative ideas or relevant information.

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Have you ever exercised or experienced true bottom-up leadership? What effect did it have on you or your colleagues? Tell us about it.

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Jen Bogle is a communications specialist who writes for Idealist Careers to share her thoughts on leadership, relationship building, and career development with other social-impact professionals.
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