Bottom-Up Leadership


When people talk about leadership, they typically refer to the person in authority as the person on “top.” There’s talk of the “highest” authority, the “top” of the organization, the “pinnacle” of power, the “top dog,” the “top of the food chain,” moving “up” the ladder, being “over” others, and so forth. Meanwhile, everyone else being is said to be “under” authority. There is the “low” man on the totem pole, the person on the “bottom” rung, and so forth.

Scripture even speaks this way from time to time. “God reigns over the nations,” says the psalmist (47:8). His throne is “high and lifted up,” says a prophet (Is. 6:1; 52:13). And New Testament elders are said to have “oversight” (1 Peter 5:2).

Using these spatial metaphors of up/down and high/low to describe leadership make sense. To lead, you need a view of the whole landscape. You need to be propped up in an umpire’s chair where you can see whether the server has stepped on the line, or if the ball has bounced out of bounds.

But here’s the thing: being a good leader also means learning how to lead from the bottom up. It means being a foundation, a buttress, a platform for the activity of others. You employ the authority you’ve been given to enable others to run, to work, to minister. You become the platform on which they live, the stage on which they dance.

After all, God is not only over us, he sets himself under us. He is our rock, giving us a sure place to stand (Ps. 18:31).

Or let me put it like this: Leadership is not about running after all your dreams and ambitions, it’s often about getting on your hands and knees and making your life a stage on which those you love can pursue their ambitions, hopes, and ministries. It’s about building up as much as it’s about moving up. It’s about equipping and enabling and empowering.

Listen to what the psalmist says immediately after calling God his rock.

“And who is a rock, except our God?—the God who equipped me with strength and made my way blameless. He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights. He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze. ‘You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your right hand supported me, and your gentleness made me great.” (18:31-35)

God equips. God trains. God secures. God supports. God makes great. How good is God! He gives us a place to stand, like a deer in the heights, so that we can ascend from the dark and deep forests to the pine-less peaks.

I was watching a war movie in which a private was sitting dazed and undone after the terrors of the day’s battle. His commanding officer walked by and, in a reassuring tone, said, “Don’t dwell on it; don’t dwell on any of it.” His CO’s experienced resolve put steel into his spine, and a few days later, after another battle, the same private calmly says the same words to another shuddering soldier.

When my little girls are melting down after a long day, unable to do basic things like get ready for bed, they don’t need an anxious, high-pitched response from me. They need my calmness. My steadiness. My gentle sureness about where a pajama arm goes, how a toothbrush works, where dolly can be found.

A pastor as much as anyone must understand this. He does not exist to do all the ministry of the church. He exists to equip (Eph. 4:12). And he pursues this path with the confident resolve of a man who knows that he, too, is under orders (see Matt. 8:9).

Typically we think of the leader as the one who “casts a vision.” And often he does. But there’s also a sense in which he lays himself down and becomes the ground on which others envision their visions.

Yet this is where leading top-down and bottom-up come together. To be a platform, a stage, a foundation in the lives of those whom the Lord has given you, you have to set yourself over them.

You have to set the boundaries. Walk here, not there, you say. Trust these people, not those.

You lead the lesson by setting the example. Look, you interject, this is how it’s done. This is how you swing the racquet, conjugate the verb, flee the sin, show the care, invest the money, warn the brother, exegete the text, prepare the sermon, love the church.

You explain which paths lead to life, and which lead to death. You help them focus their eyes and, if it’s a group of people, set their trajectory. You want their success. You pour yourself out. From first to last, you love.

In the end, I suspect, God gives us top-down authority precisely so that we can lead from the bottom-up, just like someone else I know who has led us precisely like this (Matt. 20:25-28). Do you remember how he did it?