Will Salyards
Leadership Coaching and Mentoring

Will Salyards, PhD Blog

Life, Career, Leadership

Non-Hierarchical Leadership

The Occupy Movement’s rapid growth could be thought of as having “tapped” a political narrative in American society. In this light they grew because everyone who shared a similar ideology joined in the cause. While this could be the reason for their expansion the failure to achieve widespread acceptance, even to having many city governments restrict their ability, argues that the key to their growth wasn’t ideology but something else. My belief is that the Occupy Movement was able to expand rapidly and did because of their structure of non-hierarchical leadership. That sounds odd, doesn’t it? How could the lack of hierarchy be considered a structure, shouldn’t it be the other way round? Not really, especially when you consider that hierarchy is natural to all systems. To use the thought of Ken Wilber, hierarchy comes in two forms: that which supports and makes whole (parent to child, etc.) and that which dominates and divides. Even egalitarian social systems have some form of hierarchy. It isn’t a bad word or a bad practice.

When used in the sense of non-hierarchical leadership what’s being talked about is the absence of a dominating hierarchy that injects fear and governs through power and intimidation and the presence of a supportive, whole-making hierarchy that actualizes potential.

Non-hierarchical leadership is both a structural and informational concern. Here’s what I mean: We can say that our organizations are flat and that everyone is a leader – all up to date leadership thinking – but for these words to have meaning, people must have access to information and be allowed to act on it in ways that conform to the overall goals of the organization but are still from within their own initiative. Underlying non-hierarchical leadership are the facts that a) people gauge their contribution to organizational life by the degree that their actions are based in information and not command, and b) the difference they perceive that their influence brings to bear on the organization’s goals. In other words, to be at their best people need to co-create what they do.

Leaders who best lead non-hierarchically share the following three qualities.

  1. They see that leadership is more a process than a person.
  2. They appreciate that they won’t have the key role in every context.
  3. They are aware that at times they will be followers of others within the organization.

Certainly agreement in a cause motivates people; as leaders we use this kind of motivation regularly. However, without a structure that allows people to participate in what they agree upon, agreement can become little more than ego reinforcement for the leader. When we lead without appeal to our position for legitimacy but instead realize our leadership is only as strong as the perception of those we serve then we best assure organizational ownership and not just conformance to a task.

Want to talk about it? Coaching is a great place to begin. Inquire today about a free consultation.