Bottom-up Leadership

Rogerio Bonatto Creative Thinking, Organisational Development, Project Management 3 Comments

Bottom-up leadership goes beyond influencing


Literature gives large space to traditional top-down (hierarchical) leadership, followed by lateral (peer to peer) leadership. Few authors briefly refer to concepts such as self-leadership and bottom-up leadership.

When discussing upward leadership, most authors suggest a humble position, citing: collaboration, influencing or even “green” leadership. This kind of approach is not very useful when we need the projects approved, the solution implemented, the things done in due time.

Creating trust is the most important condition for successful leadership. The immediate problem is that building trust requires time, extensive relationship and successful previous experiences. Other supportive conditions to effective leadership are power and authority, which are normally associated with hierarchical leadership. How to build power and authority in a bottom-up environment?

Exercise Technical Authority

Based on more than a decade working (and trying to sell ideas) as a Project Manager in a highly hierarchical institution – the Brazilian Air Force – I can assure that the power that derives from the technical authority is significant. I remember that, when presenting the suggested winner of an international bidding, I entered the meeting room with a whole set of documents (hundreds of pages). It was interesting to observe the attendants assuming that the suggestion would be supported by a huge amount of information and analysis. A well-prepared technical report, followed by a convincing presentation is powerful. Only in rare occasions the authorities or high-level stakeholders would have the knowledge, the will or the expertise to repel a technical proposal presented by a programme manager, experts or reliable advisers. The most common situation is that the decision-maker would stick to the suggested solution, feeling comfortable to decide. But, what if the bottom-up leader expects to face a stubborn boss or director?

Encourage reflective thinking

In such case, presenting a complete and structured solution will not succeed. We can found an answer in the following definition of leadership:

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want to be done because he wants to do it.” Dwight D. Eisenhower

Present the know facts, internal strengths and weaknesses, external opportunities and threats, benefits and costs; everything the decision-maker needs to build his opinion. In other words, make the high-level stakeholder think it is his idea. Based on the information you have just given, the authority will decide, favouring the option he now wants. You will not receive the credits for being the author of the strategy (no credits would be attributed if the idea were simply discarded), but there will be a significant contribution to the success of the project and the company/institution.


Finally, we can consider that bottom-up leadership is a natural path to innovation, due to the fact that high-level stakeholders, contrary to their speech, prioritise the maintenance of the “status quo”. I believe that true leaders should support upward leadership, for the reason that…

“Leaders don’t create followers.
They create more leaders.
Tom Peters

What do you think? Please, post your ideas in the comments area.

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