Hierarchies have killed Leadership

Hierarchies have killed Leadership 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

If you’ve ever seen any of the Men in Black movies, you know that the said “men in black” carry around a little device that flashes and flushes people’s memories of certain events.  This is how they keep humans from remembering their encounters with aliens.

I wonder, if we had access to that device and we flushed our collective memories of all of our preconceptions, expertise, and experiences of “the organization,” how would we go about setting up a company to get work done?

It’s fun to rail against hierarchy and structure, but if there’s a great and effective alternative, why don’t we see more of it in actual practice?  Even progressive entrepreneurs seems to organize around the same general top down structure in place in most organizations in the world.  Is this really the best way?

Or, has the hierarchy atrophied the skills and abilities we would need to make a different kind of organizational model actually work?  Hierarchies are still a relic of the command and control days.  The people on the top have the most power and give the most significant orders.  Those on the bottom have little power and follow the orders.  Even the organizations focused on empowerment at all levels still ultimately work in this way when you peel things back and look closely.

When you are in this environment, the skills of execution are the most highly developed and rewarded.  The ability to take, follow and execute an order is of great value and will help you move up the chain.  Communication, conflict resolution, creativity, problem solving, and critical thinking are delegated in large parts to “management.”  When things get sticky, call your manager … they will know what to do.  If they don’t, they will call their manager.  This is our model of problem solving in too many of today’s organizations.

Hierarchies, by their nature, favor control over leadership.  “Management” as a profession today is a product of the hierarchy.  And, I think, the hierarchy has deteriorated our skills in leadership.  When in a pinch, we use the control of the hierarchy to get things moved forward rather than try to win the hearts and minds of the people as a leader would do.

To make a networked organization or one that would function like “the cloud” in computing, requires a different set of skills.  Less formal organization means that the social structure of the organization must be so much stronger.  In this type of organization, we need leaders not managers.  The functioning of the organization depends upon open and effective communication at all levels–even about things that uncomfortable to discuss.  We need people who have highly developed critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity skills because they can’t default back to hierarchy when things get tough.  They have to find their way through sticky situations using their skills and calling upon those around them for help.

If you are like me, you are probably really drawn to the idea of the networked organization.  It makes so much sense on paper because it should be more efficient in part because it depends upon so much less management structure to function and it is infinitely more flexible and adaptable than the hierarchy.

But, we don’t go there.  And, I don’t think it’s because it’s not a good model.  It’s because we lack the skills to make it work–starting with a massive lack of leadership skill.  Our leaders are failing within the hierarchy, so if you take away that structure, the business may totally collapse.  So, we remained trapped by a model that I believe is incredibly inefficient and is costing our organizations a tremendous amount money to maintain.

The moral of this story is that organizational transformation isn’t about the org charts, it’s about the people.  To transform how we do business, we have to create a new generation of employees who have skills that are increasingly rare.  And, we need leaders who know how to lead, without the safety net of the hierarchy.

  • Fred Pilot

    As Scott McNealy, founder of Sun Microsystems said about a year ago at a Sacramento, Calif. symposium on telework, people hate to be managed but love to be led.

    When the hierarchy is dominant, leadership really isn’t necessary since the bureaucracy and policy provide baked in direction. This model also disfavors alternative and virtual work since it is largely based on military command structure where everyone is expected to fall in each work day and salute.

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