Last Thursday I published the first of what will be recurring posts focused on leadership. On Thursdays, I’m exploring characteristics of leading well, what it means to lead well, and how to develop the leadership abilities we all have.
You can’t start a conversation about leadership without looking first at hierarchy. So much of our understanding of leadership is intertwined with the concept of hierarchy. Our most basic image of a leader brings to mind someone (usually a male) standing at the top of a corporate management structure or leading a group of soldiers into battle. In other words, our most basic picture of a leader is of someone at the top of a hierarchy.
The most readily recognizable example of hierarchical leadership is the command-and-control model drawn from the military. In this model there is a distinct chain of command, and each member of the organization has a clearly defined role along with the expectation that they will not veer outside those defining lines of their role. The path for advancement in the hierarchy is laid out in the unambiguous black and white of regulations and guidelines, and there is an organizational understanding that decisions and instructions (“orders”) come from the upper levels.
Some people are attracted to hierarchical organizations because of the prospect of achieving one of the top spots and potentially becoming the person who wields the most power in the organization. There are others who aren’t necessarily interested in wielding the power but who instead see the hierarchical structure and rigidity as indications that the organization will provide a secure environment that can be navigated with assurance and certainty. Safety and security are powerfully attractive, particularly in times of economic uncertainty and cultural transition.
I love the humorous way Irving Berlin highlighted the desire we all have at times for the kind of safety and security that hierarchical organizations can provide. In one of my favourite movies, White Christmas, the story follows two World War II veterans who become wildly successful theatre performers after the war. In a scene toward the end of the movie they perform a song called, “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army.” Through the rosy-tinted glasses of nostalgia, they recall all the things that were easier about life in the army compared to the challenges they’re facing as civilians. In the army someone else took care of providing their clothes, preparing their meals, making sure they received medical care, etc. These lines in the song always make me smile:
A soldier out of luck
was really never stuck
There’s always someone higher up where you can pass the buck.
I’ve spent many years in hierarchical environments (church organizations and accounting firms). Some environments have been more extreme examples of hierarchy than others, depending on who was occupying the senior positions. Consistently, though, the more strongly hierarchical cultures withheld leadership and influence to the smallest population possible. The natural result of this was staff members who, like the song from White Christmas, were prone to finding someone higher up to pass the buck of responsibility to. Strongly hierarchical cultures with their focus on conformity assign a high degree of risk to independent thought and therefore discourage decision making by those outside the senior levels. Repeatedly I have listened to people express their strong desire to know with certainty what the rules are. Whether in reference to the senior pastor or the senior partner, the questions people ask generally boil down to “what does ‘upper management’ think?” The understanding is that by faithfully following the instructions of the leader(s) and meeting their expectations, I will earn my position in the organization or my access to God, and I’ll be secure.
What has been your experience with hierarchical environments? Do you think there can be effective leadership without a clearly defined hierarchy?