Can leadership be shown bottom-up? How often have you influenced your boss to think or act differently? Is this not leadership shown by you to your boss?

Because we normally think of leadership as a top-down role, the very idea of bottom-up leadership is nonsense. However, there are lots of examples of leadership that are not role-based, that are similar to bottom-up leadership.

Consider green leadership. When someone’s green ideas promoted in one country are adopted by a group in a faraway country, this is a one-off act of leadership where the person showing it may not even know those who follow let alone be in charge of them.

What about Martin Luther King, Jr.? When he protested against segregation on buses, he had a leadership impact on local and federal government as well as the general public, leading to the Supreme Court banning such discrimination. His leadership amounted to challenging the status quo and calling for a better way. Neither his leadership nor that of the green leader involves taking charge of a group and getting something done through them.

A specific example of bottom-up leadership would be the Sony employee who developed PlayStation. Although he had to overcome serious resistance from Sony executives who felt that Sony shouldn’t make toys, he persevered and convinced management to adopt his new product idea.

Bottom-up leadership can also be shown by example. When a new employee brings new and better work habits to a new employer, such as better customer service or quality for instance, just behaving differently can influence the new employee’s boss and colleagues to adopt the new work habits.

Leadership that is not role-based can also be shown by one group to another, such as when companies follow their competitors, as Samsung and other mobile phone manufacturers have done over the years with Apple.

Chief characteristics of bottom-up leadership

Bottom-up leadership differs from the top-down, role-based variety as follows:

  • It’s a one-off act not an ongoing role or position.
  • It comes to an end once others adopt the new practice, it may not have anything to do with implementation; those who follow may be left to implement the ideas themselves.
  • It’s limited to influence, rather than helping followers execute anything.
  • Good content can be enough to have a leadership impact, if prospective followers are receptive, regardless of the bottom-up leader’s personality or style.
  • Its essence is to challenge the status quo, to champion a better way.

Bottom-up leadership also differs from informal, dispersed and distributed leadership, which are all top-down forms of leadership. Yes, all employees can show such leadership but, in all cases, it amounts to employees taking charge of others in their immediate work group in order to get some piece of work done more effectively.

Informal leadership entails occupying an ongoing role and being a source of direction for a team in lieu of the formal leader. The process of leading informally does not differ from its formal counterpart. It’s just the basis of authority that is different.

Those who refuse to accept any such idea as bottom-up leadership insist that employees are followers regardless of how they behave. When you show leadership to your boss, you might be labeled a proactive, collaborative or supportive follower but you can never be said to show leadership to your boss. Surely this reactionary stance is perverse!

If your boss adopts your ideas, who is leading whom? However, if you buy the notion of bottom-up leadership, to be consistent, you need to agree that leadership can be a one-off act and thus doesn’t need to be an ongoing role.


So what?


Well, organizations should acknowledge and encourage bottom-up leadership if they really want employees to feel engaged and to be more innovative. The problem with an exclusively top-down model of leadership is that it encourages everyone to see all direction as flowing in a top-down direction. Leaders are supposed to come up with the vision and promote new directions. The employee’s role is to follow, to implement or execute the leader’s direction. How can employees help but feel like mere passengers on the bus in such a culture?


If we really want to learn anything from the leadership of Martin Luther King, then it is time to recognize that his leadership was shown bottom-up by challenging the status quo and by exerting one-off instances of influence on government and the general public, not by taking charge of people and getting things done through them.


The truth is that most of what those in charge do is management, not leadership but that is a hard pill for people to swallow who idealize leadership and thus want to maintain a monopoly hold over it.