Trickle-up Theory: 10 Ways Organizations Can Create Stronger Leaders

When a ship founders, blame rarely lies at the feet of the crew. True, a seaman may fail to properly secure a mooring line or spot a collision risk on the horizon, but ultimately it is the captain who is liable for keeping the vessel afloat and on course.

Just as managers are responsible for the poor performance of their team, a company is culpable for any weaknesses present in its leadership. Responsibility flows upward, and senior administrators need to employ smart strategies to keep their organizations from capsizing.

Here are 10 ways organizations can create stronger leaders:

  1. Avoid just-because promotions to management. Before transplanting employees from positions they are flourishing in, make sure they have the appropriate skills—and desire—to succeed in a leadership role. You can still reward employees for good work with a pay raise or more challenging job description—just make sure it’s well-suited to their strengths.
  2. Encourage managers to seek advice. Don’t cultivate a culture of fear, shame and ego but rather nurturing, humility and collegiality. Make sure managers feel comfortable approaching senior leaders about questions or problems.
  3. Invite a fresh perspective. Sometimes a pair of unfamiliar eyes combined with professional expertise can reshape a flabby company into a high-performance athlete. Consider bringing in an organizational consultant to gain clarity on your culture; develop your leadership; and assess and address barriers to performance. You can boost employee happiness, engagement and productivity by creating a positive organization.
  4. Provide training opportunities. Companies should offer ongoing training and professional development opportunities for leaders and staff alike. Creating an atmosphere of learning is a key way to enhance engagement while honing and deepening your team’s competencies.
  5. Strive for professional and personal growth. Senior administrators should not only be seeking to become their best selves through leadership coaching, but they should be encouraging their managers to do the same.
  6. Challenge folks. When people feel stuck in a routine, they quickly grow bored. Our brains thrive on stimulation, and that means constantly pushing at the edges of our existing skill sets and forging new neural pathways. Even those who fear change need a sense of challenge to propel them forward.
  7. Understand the difference between managing and leading. In the post Managing Stuff, Leading People, Senior Manager of Sales and Leadership Development Steve Keating articulates the difference between managing and leading: “When you’re talking to a manager you get the feeling that they are important; when you’re talking to a leader you get the feeling that you are important.” Leaders are acutely aware of their team members’ abilities, they care for them as individuals and they possess a grander vision, which they can communicate to others in ways that stir enthusiastic engagement.
  8. Mentor each other. Instead of assuming an autocratic demeanor, handing down performance targets like kingly decrees, senior leaders should take new managers under their wings, offering wisdom from the trenches as they rear up the next generation of trailblazers.
  9. Seek out strengths. Don’t focus on people’s weaknesses but rather their strengths. If some employees are faltering, figure out why and redefine their roles to capitalize on their talents. Take advantage of Strengths Finder and other resources such as an organizational development consultant to pinpoint and polish the gifts in each team member.
  10. Lead by inspiration. Great leaders model the leadership skills they would like their managers to exhibit. There is nothing less motivating than a hypocritical boss or more inspiring than a leader who authentically embodies the best that leaders can be.

Ready to Make Your Leadership Shine?

Contact Chris Cook at or 541.601.0114 to discuss how she can cultivate the gems at your company through organizational development consulting and leadership coaching.


  1. I always enjoy reading your posts, Chris. It’s so important to provide on going training for employees and never forget to challenge them! You couldn’t have said it any better – without a little challenge every now and again, workers quickly grow bored of their routines. Hope all is well!

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