Top-Down Management May Be Out of Style. But Here’s Why It’s Still Relevant and Effective

When command-and-control is still the most effective way to lead.

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BY Alison Davis - 23 Mar 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Search online for "top-down" or "command-and-control" management and you'll find an avalanche of articles about how this approach to leadership is both antiquated and repressive:

But put aside your mental picture of a brontosaurus (you know: big tail, small brain) and consider the fact that top-down management (with a twist--I'll explain in a minute) is an extremely effective way to lead people.

Micah Harper, writing in Business Administration and Management, explains that top-down management occurs when the leader or leaders make critical decisions, which are then handed down to the next-level leaders, who are charged with implementing that directive with their teams.

The advantage of this approach, writes Harper is that "making decisions from the top allows leaders to be clear on goals and expectations. It also gives employees more time to focus on work duties instead of attending meetings discussing potential directions of the company. When a strong leader is at the forefront, managers can quickly and effectively take charge, assign tasks to teams or employees, and establish solid deadlines." Plus, top-down leadership "gives companies a drive that they might not have otherwise."

For an example of top-down leadership's effectiveness, recall that 2018 has been a brutal winter for the Northeast. (In fact, the spring hasn't been so wonderful either.) And back in early January, a vicious winter storm not only dumped a foot of snow, it also caused chaos at New York City's Kennedy International Airport. In-bound planes were stranding on the tarmac. Overseas flights had to turn around or route to other airports. Travelers were separated from their luggage and had to sleep in the terminal.

But although Boston Logan International Airport faced the same weather conditions, it simply canceled flights without pain and suffering--and a day later was running normally.

The difference between the two airports, writes Patrick McGeehan in The New York Times, is how the new institutions are managed. Kennedy is run loosely, with airlines and other companies running the terminals. But Logan uses a command-and-control management approach.

Writes McGeehan, "The contrasting approach is evident at a daily gathering in a packed room tucked into one of Logan's four terminals. Every morning, dozens of airport officials meet there with representatives of airlines and a roster of state and federal agencies to share information that might affect operations: everything from the weather to runway maintenance."

At Logan, Ed Freni, the director of aviation for Massport, leads the meetings. Each of the four terminals at Logan has its own manager who reports to Freni.

"Ask anyone at the airport who's in charge, they'll say Ed Freni," said Thomas P. Glynn, the chief executive of Massport.

And Glynn adds: "Top-down management is sort of out of fashion these days." But the approach works at Logan "because people have respect for those at the top."

And there's another factor that makes Logan's management approach work--the twist that I mentioned earlier. Notice that every single day the director of aviation presides over a meeting attended by leaders representing airlines and other stakeholders to discuss what's happening. That intense, high-touch communication means that Freni is not just issuing orders--he's allowing information to be shared and leaders to engage in dialogue.

Mark Lukens writes in Fast Company that there's actually a false choice between top-down and bottom-up leadership.

"The truth is that leaders can--and probably should--have it both ways. Neither top-down nor bottom-up leadership work consistently if they're seen as absolutes. There's usually room for both within a single organization at the same time."

After all, top-down leadership is really about setting a clear direction and making sure leaders, managers and employees understand how to act on that direction.

That doesn't mean people have to march in lockstep without participating in decisions. Writes Lukens: "Set the parameters for your organization from the top-your purpose, goals, design, the sort of brand you want to be, etc. Then use those parameters to frame the bottom-up decisions."

Top-down still works because it gives an organization direction and discipline. Once you have those boundaries, you can give employees room to put their own stamp on their work. You can manage from the top, as Lukens writes, "yet at the same time let your employees decide how best to make the work happen. Tap into their ideas, and earn their commitment and engagement."



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