It’s Always a Leadership Issue: Trickle Down vs. Bottom Up

Whether we describe them as “caring” or “ineffective” or “compassionate” or “strong” or “weak” or “just awful,” all leaders are in the position of deciding the fate of POWER and ENTITLEMENT in our organizations and communities.

Let me give you a couple of definitions that work for me:

POWER: The ability to act.  The force to get something done.

ENTITLEMENT: A guarantee offered by the community you are in that tells you you, just by the nature of being you, are part of that community.  I like to think of it as a “Welcome Home” sign at the front of the door.


This kind of Leadership model asserts that it is important to give people POWER first – the ability to do, to act – and, as their sense of POWER increases, they are then able to gain more access to ENTITLEMENT or all of the goodies that a community has to offer.  One on hand it makes logical sense.  This is the model of power very much supported by the Republican Party.  They say, “C’mon people!  This is America!  Anyone can make anything happen in their lives here (POWER) if they are just willing to work at it.  And the more you work, the more you get.  We can’t just give you hand outs (ENTITLEMENT) if you are not willing to work for it.”

Many work places and schools, regardless of political affiliation, are also set up under this model.  I give you this certain job position (POWER) and you do what you are supposed to do, I will give you a bonus (ENTITLEMENT).  Or, I put you in this honors class (POWER) and you work really hard and you get good grades (ENTITLEMENT).

This feels very familiar, right?  Of course it does.  This model of leadership is pretty much the way things work around here.  We all understand this.  But we also understand the feelings of alienation, disconnection, and chaos that can come from this model.  There are deeply inherent flaws in this model:

  • Who gets to have POWER and when?  How much do they get?
  • Who gets to give this POWER and who gets to take it away?
  • What does it take to keep the POWER when you have it?
  • When you do something wrong and POWER is taken from you (PUNISHMENT), how do you get it back?

Under this model, ENTITLEMENT is a dirty word because it means that you get something even when you haven’t worked for it…even when you don’t “deserve” it.  And we don’t like this.  This feels totally unfair.

Here’s another model:


What if we were to embrace the actual definition of ENTITLEMENT?

An entitlement is a guarantee of access to benefits based on established rights or by legislation. A “right” is itself an entitlement associated with a moral or social principle, such that an “entitlement” is a provision made in accordance with legal framework of a society. Typically, entitlements are laws based on concepts of principle (“rights”) which are themselves based in concepts of social equality or enfranchisement.

What if we were to create schools and work places and communities that insist say,”Welcome! Just by being part of this community, you are deserving.  You are valued.  There are certain guarantees that we all start out with right away because we are all equally important here.”  This model of leadership does not see ENTITLEMENT as a bad word but the foundation of equity.  It understands that all of its employees or students or citizens will feel more able to act and contribute, more POWERful, because they are more valued right off the bat.  And as their sense of POWER increases, folks are better prepared to create what works for them as well as what makes a positive contribution to the rest of their community.

Does this feel familiar?  If it doesn’t, it’s unfortunate because so much of this model is the whole foundation of our democratic system.  We have just, somehow, forgotten what democracy really looks like.

What do we have to do now to remember?  I believe that all of us, whether we are able to articulate it or not, are desperate to get our democracy back.  We are desperate for more positive definitions of POWER and ENTITLEMENT and we want to know how to access them in our lives.


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