the fallacy of ‘it starts at the top’


“You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.”

Ken Kesey


“Position doesn’t make anybody a leader. Being in charge doesn’t make the wrong person right.”

Tim Berry


One of the most quoted phrases with regard to leadership and business is “it starts at the top.” Well. No. 99% of the time it doesn’t. The truth is, the majority of the time, all good stuff starts at the ‘bottom’ (or edges) and it ‘stops at the top.’ Ok. Even that is slightly off base. Things don’t even happen bottom up (that simplistically), they actually happen in a more molecular way in which some mindsets, attitudes and behaviors coalesce into a cohesive energy that can shift a company (shift can be good or bad).

  • The truth is leadership kills more shit than it creates and stops traffic flow more than it generates a smoother, faster, flow of traffic <metaphor for ideas, business, work, etc.>.
  • The truth is nothing starts in a business until the “bottom” decides it does.

Look. “The top” can do a lot of things and generally speaking one would hope they exhibit the behavior and attitudes and even the mindset you would hope the larger organization does, but (a) there is often a natural disconnect between top and bottom which is kind of difficult to make a seamless connection and (b) “the bottom” – or ‘those who do the work’ often establish their own rules of behavior.

Which leads me to “the top” tends to think those in the “down” are morons or stupid.

This whole ‘starts from the top’ implies something almost as simplistically wrong as “trickle down economics.” There is almost a naïve belief in linear-like cascading duplication. And because of that the ‘top’ views the solution for any lack of progress as, well, more duplication, consistency and frequency. The thought is “if we repeat it three times, they will remember it (and like it)” rather than sitting back and going “well, we were pretty clear, they are pretty smart, they aren’t lazy, so rather than repeat – what is wrong with the ask?”

In addition (tied to morons and stupid) those on the top look down and see lots of ants. What I mean by that is they see individual workers with individual minds doing individually misguided things. That means they view how they should communicate, or dictate, is in a one-to-one fashion. What this ignores is, well, how a culture is constructed, how organizations really work and the overall characteristic of effective productivity – connectivity, communication between and collective coherence. Individuals cluster. So, if you want anything to start company-wide you have to make shit happen between clusters (microcommunities/networks). Oh. And clusters have clustered for a reason and one of the reasons is a lack of desire to emulate another cluster. Oh. But if you want something done company-wide each of the clusters must copy each other, or emulate each other, in some form or fashion. Okay. They have to work in a coherence fashion which inevitably means some lack of consistent behavior with a coherent desire and objective vision.

Which leads me to integrative thinking and Mary Parker Follett.

Let’s just accept that there will always be at least a bit of conflict between top and down. Even with radical transparency there will simply be some things the top sees that the down don’t; and vice versa. What that means is the top will inevitably have some ideas different than the down; and vice versa. So instead of ‘top down’ maybe leadership should embrace integration. Let me explain via Mary Parker Follett:

According to Follet, there are three ways to respond to conflict: Dominance, Compromise and Integration. Dominance means victory of one side over the other. This works in the short term, but is unproductive in the long run (to make her point Follet presciently alludes to the results of “The War” – WWI). Compromise means each party having to give up something for the sake of a meaningful reduction of friction. Far from ideal, compromise often leaves parties unsatisfied – having given up something of value. Finally, integration, the option championed by Follet, means creatively incorporating the parties fundamental desires/interests into the solution.

Let’s set compromise off to the side for today’s topic because when discussing ‘the top’ it comes down to either dominance or integration. Suffice it to say, 99.9% of us know dominance doesn’t work – it doesn’t instill intrinsic desire for ongoing behavior. Yet, dominance is dogged as a style of management. Which leaves us with integration – incorporating ideas into a solution.

Here is where I offer up “integration with a twist.”

Most ‘top’ leadership sees integration as integrating employee thinking, doing, tactics, into the larger vision/objectives. In other words, show you care by embedding their ideas within the larger vision/company objective. I suggest the most effective path is in the inverse, i.e., integrate the vision within the “down” thinking, ideas, desires. In this case it increases value in the ‘down’ ideas by embedding the larger vision. In comparison, the alternative increases value of the vision at the expense of the ‘down’ ideas. I know I articulated this fairly harshly, but you get the point. Embedding the ‘top’ into the ‘down’ inevitably increases productivity, caring (craftmanship), ownership and agility (ability to adapt to different situations and contexts). Integration in this manner frees up the ability to think and move while stabilizing the coherency. Integration encourages autonomy, involvement, and coherence between clusters as well as with “the top.”

All of this to suggest that “it starts at the top” is a fallacy. Ponder.

Written by Bruce