Two Types of Leadership Culture


After working for decades with hundreds of churches and non-profits, I see two very common leadership cultures at work in the staff of most of these organizations.

1. Top-Down

One leader is making the decisions. The buck doesn’t just stop with him or her…almost all decisions require their involvement. It’s quite possible this leader started the organization, and as it has grown has continued to be involved in almost every decision. This leader is typically very gifted, so this actually works effectively for a long time.

Some would call this a “dictatorial” style of leadership—but I think that infuses a personality type that isn’t always true. I’ve met many Top-Down leaders who are fantastic to be around. They love and care for others well. They are not gruff or difficult. However, they stay involved in every decision, which stunts the potential growth of the organization.

A top-down leadership structure draws doers, not leaders. Other leaders will not stay for long in an organization where they are not empowered with responsibility and authority.

This type of structure is also a huge risk for the organization. What happens when the leader leaves, or dies, or is suddenly incapacitated? I worked with one church who had a top-down leader who had a heart-attack and was away from the church for nine months. The church lost 50% of their members, as the church was paralyzed and unable to make decisions or provide simple communication and vision. They never recovered.

 It should be noted that the leader of a Top-Down organization is the last person to know they are not collaborative. It takes a very secure and self-aware leader to admit this, and to get help to move past it.  

2. Collaborative

In this model, there is a clear leader, but the organization is being led by a team. Leaders are empowered to lead. People are trusted. Some decisions are made as a team and well-processed, others are made by empowered second-chair leaders. If the senior leader doesn’t agree with a decision—they don’t reverse it. They applaud the initiative, and talk with the leader later about how to think about it differently in the future.

High capacity leaders thrive in this environment. The organization thrives as leaders are empowered to solve problems and make decisions. Innovative and creative leaders are drawn to a collaborative environment.

 This culture not only draws leaders, it breeds leaders. You can’t help but grow when you are around or on a collaborative team.

My Choice

I’ve worked in both models. I’ve even worked at the same organization that shifted from Top-Down, to Collaborative, and back again to Top-Down. For me, life is too short to spend any more time working in an environment where only one brain is required. I decided a few years ago I would finish my career working on collaborative teams, where voices are heard and encouraged, where ideas are welcome, where the unique gifting of each team member is valued and developed.

What is your experience with either of these models of leadership? Leave me a comment.

Want help with this? Consider joining one of the Coaching Networks that I will be facilitating next fall. We have one specifically for Lead Pastors, and another for those who fill the Executive Pastor role at your church. Registration is open now and early bird pricing is available.