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Why Top-Down Leadership Stalls Companies and Churches

Thursday, April 29, 2021 • Matt Loehr • Leadership
The top-down method of leading doesn't work by itself.
Why Top-Down Leadership Stalls Companies and Churches

Top-down leadership is a sure-fire formula for failure. Before you (as a top leader in your company or church) get upset and stop reading, let me explain. The top-down method of leading doesn't work by itself. Here's why.

For years I worked at a 60,000-employee company. I was trained and certified to be a leader within. Shortly after, I found myself on an elder board at a very large church. The parallels of how my company and my church ran their affairs were stunning. Often, the very few at the top were making decisions for the very many at the bottom. At face value, that may not seem problematic. The problem when top-down leadership is the only factor in the equation.  

A more biblical approach is to do a bottom-up investigation before implementing a top-down response.  Imagine with me here. What if you had groups of people at every level of your organization answer authentic questions in a 'safe' manner in which they were honest and open? What if you were well-informed by those on the front-line in addition to the limited view of the leaders sitting next to you in high-level meetings? 

Bottom-up then top-down is the secret to the sauce. Domino's Pizza recently found a low point in its company history as stock prices bottomed out at $8.76 per share. New CEO Patrick Doyle took over and came up with a brilliant idea on how to change things. Instead of asking his top-level executives for solutions, he created focus groups which included customers, employees, and online questionnaires to masses of people. Because of his bottom-up investigation, he was able to respond with an ingenious plan in order to grow and solve serious problems that none of the top executives were even aware of. 

"Soon after Patrick took over, the company launched an ad campaign that has become legendary for its boldness, sharing comments from focus groups about what people thought of the product: "worst pizza I ever had;" "the sauce tastes like ketchup;" "the crust tastes like cardboard." Doyle appeared in the ads, accepted the withering criticism, and promised to "work days, nights, and weekends" to get better."

Following his research and exposure of the worrisome complaints with the public – in effect sharing the bottom-up information – Doyle then rolled out a solution to return the company to a competitive position. You know the rest of the story. Now Domino's stock is worth $160 per share. In fact, a slice of pepperoni pizza sounds good about now°.

But I digress. I share this example because I created a process built on this premise and have taken churches and Christian-owned businesses through it. In short: It works. You might be wondering, "How is this biblical?" For starters, in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul challenges leaders to give special honor to the parts of the body that are lower and seemingly less important. Paul's teaching is clear: this passage is all about removing division and unifying the body of Christ within a church, a family, a community and an organization. It's a formula for Godly success. 

Bottom-up investigation is a requirement when churches or businesses hire me. I find it surprising when many of them want to bypass the investigation and simply hire me to 'FIX' their problems. I can't. Not without following this process. All the people in your organization withhold wisdom, insight and viewpoints that are extremely valuable. They generally won't share this wisdom unless given a safe, anonymous way to do so that won't jeopardize their careers or relationships. Their "felt pain" matters to me and it should matter to you. I don't trust the limited view of elders, pastors, CEO's or even myself. 

I trust the voice of the people I am serving as a whole. Every single project I have taken on over the years with a bottom-up approach has revealed surprising information of which the top-level leaders were absolutely unaware. In some cases, they wouldn't even believe the data and pridefully said, "Those reports are wrong. The people don't really feel that way!" I was shocked. Some refused to believe hundreds of people that were under their care as they blindly clung to their own views. 

I have developed a process that works in both churches and companies: IDENTIFY the felt need of the people using bottom-up feedback, RECTIFY issues with input from special focus groups, UNIFY the entire team by providing realistic solutions, and SIMPLIFY the implementation of new strategies by meeting with key leaders for one year of regular check points in order to achieve long-term GROWTH.



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