Top-Down Vs. Bottom-Up: God’s Design for Leadership

The typical model most people envision when they think of leadership is what I call “convertible leadership,” or the top-down leadership model.

Larry O’Donnell

The top-down leadership model focuses on the leader first, with the leader having power over others. In this model of leadership, the leader is viewed as having ascended to the top of the pyramid into a position of authority over others.

Everyone serves the leader, and the leader directs others to perform in a way that serves the interests of the leader to bring the leader success and further elevate the leader. In the top-down leadership model, if others are not serving the leader, then the leader really has no use for them. The leader is viewed as the boss, and the boss has power, privileges, and perks by being at the top of the pyramid.

At the opposite end of the leadership spectrum is the model of servant leadership. Servant leadership is bottom-up leadership. In the servant leadership model, the leader places the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform at their highest potential.

The difference between top-down leadership and bottom-up leadership can be thought of as the difference between pushing and pulling. In the top-down leadership model, the leader is in control and trying to push the members of the team to where the leader wants them to go, sometimes even using fear and intimidation to push them places they may not want to go. In the bottom-up leadership model, the leader is reaching out to pull the team members to an ever-higher level by modeling servant leadership and, by encouragement and empowerment, helping each team member excel to new heights and contribute their individual skills to the success of the team.

I have seen the power of people who are fully engaged team members because they know those in leadership care about them, so they in turn want the leader to know they can be counted on to deliver their top performance. Now I realize certain types of people are willing to put up with having a boss “lord over them” because they believe, if they just endure and persevere, they will eventually get their time at the top of the pyramid so they can “lord it over” others.

Top-down leaders who are insecure tend to rule by fear, intimidation, and lashing out, trying to show they are in control, believing people fear punishment. Through such fear-and-intimidation tactics, they believe, the team will work harder and be driven to success.

This is the opposite of being a servant leader. A servant leader will help position each member of the team for success, encouraging and empowering all team members to be the best they can be, which will further build the trust among the team members and drive the success of the entire team.

Servant leaders are secure in their relationship with God, and they are secure enough in themselves to know they need to surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are and who have different skills than they do so the team can win together. Insecure leaders tend to surround themselves with people just like themselves. They will tend to micromanage the team members to control the team so the leader can point to himself or herself as being the cause for the success, when that will most likely conclude in failure.

So, what does it mean to be a servant leader?

The servant leader serves others first and doesn’t expect to be served by them. Leadership is about caring for others and focusing primarily on the growth and well-being of the people on their team. The servant leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform at their highest potential. This is what Jesus taught and how Jesus lived.

So, how are these leadership styles evidenced in business or any team setting (even on sports teams)?

As Jesus said, the servant leader’s highest priority is to serve other people’s needs, not to be served by them. The best test I have used is to ask myself, “Am I helping the people on my team grow as persons? Am I helping them grow in their career? Am I helping them grow in their faith? Am I helping them see Jesus at work? By modeling the servant behavior as their leader, am I helping them learn how to become servant leaders, and ultimately, see Jesus and the Holy Spirit operating in my life? How would others describe my leadership style?”

I have found servant leadership to be a total game changer. I have seen this leadership style develop the highest performing teams I have ever been on because people cared about one another and wanted to win together. Would you rather work for a boss who wants to use you for his or her own purposes or a boss who cares about you and your development?

We each get to decide what type of leader we are going to be. How do you want people to remember you as a leader? What do you fear in choosing to be a servant leader? Do you fear losing power? By sharing the power, you will gain the respect of the members on your team. Do you fear not being given the credit for the team’s successes? By being a servant leader, you can allow God to turn your trash (what others thought of you as a top-down leader who doesn’t care about anyone but yourself) into treasure (an inspiring leader who cares about others and leads the team to tremendous success together).

By leading the way Jesus led, and the way God wants us to lead, we can allow God to work through us in our actions and words to make a difference in other people’s lives. The fundamental question we must continually ask, is: “Who is managing my life, me or God?” To become great leaders, we must turn our lives over to God as servant leaders and serve others.

Larry O’Donnell served many years as president and COO of Waste Management, where he became best known as the first “Undercover Boss” from CBS’ hit reality show. A popular speaker, leadership consultant and ministry leader, he holds a Master’s in Biblical and Theological Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary and mentors leaders around the world through his full-time ministry. His new book, “Management Waste,” from which this piece was adapted, is available now at



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