Top-Down and Bottom-Up Leadership

Each year, Masonic lodges elect a new Master for the following year. The progressive line of positions leading up to the master’s chair acts as a kind of leadership training, or at least ideally should. Long before someone “assumes the east” and takes over the role, they’re encouraged to build a plan for their year as master.
Planning advice, this article is a good example usually boils down to something like the following steps:
1. Get organized; make a plan
2. Figure what your 3-5 key priorities will be for the year
3. Delegate those to members of the lodge; organize committees
4. Carry out the work
Planning comes from the top and goes down (“top-down”). Usually in the form of a committee structure, the master is encouraged to put a structure on to the lodge and see that the structure is carried out.
I think this type of advice is generally very well meaning but ultimately not very effective. Let’s look at the problems first.


Most Masters Leave Wishing They’d Accomplished More

You hear this from almost every past master. They set out with a long list of things they’d like to accomplish. Things got complicated; they got less done then they would have liked. People are almost taught to expect this. Between the lines, sometimes they can’t get support for their key initiatives. Other times they take too much on themselves. You often see masters trying to carry most or all of their agenda solo, and that’s never going to work.

Lack of Continuity

Lodge officers are encouraged to create multi-year plans within the line, but let’s be honest, most lodges do not do this, and keeping continuity through many 1 year terms is fundamentally difficult. This can create a situation where a series of 1-year plans can “whipsaw” the culture of the lodge between different priorities. Everybody has a topdown plan and they’re all different.

Cajoling Participation

Every master knows what I’m talking about. Who is going to do all these tasks? To get everything in the top-down plan done, people have to agree to the plan, in fine detail. The only trouble with that: it’s a volunteer organization. Masonic lodges are held together by friendships much more than they’re held together by common purpose or vision. It isn’t intended to be cynical, it’s just the truth.
The problem with top-down plans is that there’s always some element of them that boils down to asking a volunteer to do something they don’t want to do.

Bottom-Up Planning

A few wise guides to Masonic planning usually include some little snippet like this:
The Master should encourage each member to take part in the activity best suited to his character and abilities and to make sure there is an activity in which each member can participate.
In a bottoms-up mode, you don’t make a plan, the lodge makes it for you. What would that look like, in practice?
1. You talk to each member individually and ask them why they’re a member of the lodge, and what they’re there to do 2. You try to understand the close-friends relationships. Most guys in a lodge are friends, but some are particularly tight. These close-friends relationships are the reason why guys are there and participate 3. You try to determine what people are called to do 4. You ask what they need, to empower them to do that in the next year.
5. Your lodge plan is the sum of all of those things

Solutions to Planning Problems

Let’s take a look at how bottoms-up planning solves the problems we discussed.
1. Wishing you’d accomplished more: the key insight is that your year as master will be the lodge accomplishing things, not you accomplishing things. Your job is to call forward what the lodge wants to do, and to steward that. You are a steward, not a boss. One of my friends says that the supreme joke about the position of Worshipful Master is that the job holds ultimate power but those who act like it are lost. You spend years going through the chairs, to prepare you to assume this ultimate power, only to realize that all of that power was an illusion; it’s still a volunteer organization.
2. Lack of multi-year continuity: masters who follow a bottom-up plan have this one automatically solved and in the bag. The source of your multi-year continuity is the interests & talents of the lodge itself. It is the same as the continuity of your actual lodge membership 3. Cajoling participation: the bottoms-up plan doesn’t ask people to do things they don’t want to do. It only encourages them to do the things they already want to do. There is no participation to compel.
There is no real downside In a bottoms-up mode, the master might feel strongly that the lodge needs to take on some effort like more visibility in the community. The master might be disappointed if there’s no brother that feels passionate about that. Guess what? It probably isn’t going to happen no matter what you do. Having a top-down plan and wanting to make it happen doesn’t change that, unless you’re a master of truly uncommon charisma.
Another big worry are “marginally attached members.” The members who sometimes come, and don’t really participate. What should a master draw out of members who don’t participate? This is a tricky question with no solid answer. But it doesn’t hurt just to meet them, and have an open-ended conversation about what they want out of Masonry to try to find out, without any expectation. It sure wouldn’t hurt to show them what others are doing, and seed them with ideas to participate by helping others. You can’t tell volunteers what to do, but you can show them what it looks like when other members engage and get meaningful things out of their participation with the Craft.

Repetition Repetition Repetition

When I was newly raised, I can now look back and identify a big error I made repeatedly. I would try a thing (“we should have a dinner event!”).
I would organize and execute it, and wouldn’t get as much participation as I expected and this would leave me demoralized; it didn’t work. I have found since that it makes more sense to pick a small number of ideas and commit to executing them repeatedly to build participation over time.
People need to see others doing things from afar before they’ll wade in, and to give them that time, you might need to repeat a program or activity that “didn’t work the first time.”

A Different Skill: Servant Leadership

Consider the last few masters in your lodge. Did they all really have “their year” — or did they have another “lodge year”, where the master was effectively the steward of what was going on? In 50 years when brothers are looking back on the history of your lodge, will they call 2023 “Bob’s year” or will they call it . . . 2023? Potential leaders who can recognize this are no longer under pressure to perform or live up to an expectation to the same degree as you might expect of someone tasked with pushing forward an agenda.
The real task of the master is to help the lodge become itself, only more so. This calls for a different skill of servant leadership; which gives a pass to a lot of the “power” aspects of the role in favor of service.

Power is the Wrong Frame of Mind

Yes, you as Master can gavel down any discussion any time you like; but be careful before you wield that power. Yes, you as master can order the expenditure of lodge funds whenever and however you like.
The more scenarios you think through though, the more over time you realize how illusory this “power” really is. It is like the “power” that a man has to stab himself in the arm at any time, or throw his own shoes in a lake. No one can stop you! No one will gainsay your ultimate right to do so!
Some power that is. Consider this carefully if you are ever inclined to “flex” in front of your lodge membership, that certain better informed brethren can see that kind of flexing for what it is.

Ever the Student, Never the Perfect Ashlar

If there is one thing I would request of anyone going into the east, it’s try to hold “beginner’s mind”; an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of pre-conceived notions. Simply consider that you are in the chair to continue your own learning journey as much as to help others, and you will do wonderfully.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s ind there a few.”
— Shunryu Suzuki