Do We Need Some Hierarchy?

This blog is about re-patterning the human experience at work.  A few of the fundamental assumptions underlying these posts is that individuals have more control over their own work experience than they might think.  Also, that leaders set context—sometimes in helpful or unhelpful ways–for both human experience and business outcomes.  Another working assumption is that not all leaders are in identified “leadership” positions and that many people who are in “leadership” positions are actually nominal leaders.  You don’t know who is who until you see who is followed—willingly.  And, all of this, as we know, is complicated by our culturally deep inculcation of deference to authority, or positional power.  Hierarchy tends to come with that kind of authority.

There is a great interest in the power of human networks these days—as opposed to the “great man” of the past—and also great interest in distributed and participatory decision making.  When an agile adoption is underway in an organization, for instance, you’ll hear a lot about letting teams make decisions previously made by managers.  It takes a tremendous amount of skill to lead in a way so as to nurture an agile adoption or set a collaborative context for work to be done and still be a good steward of the organization.  And, perhaps the notion that it takes so much skill is related to the fact that this is such a different way of working than is common.  At a conference for an organization of professional mediators I attended recently speakers made comments about the swift emergence of disputes resulting from changing expectations among workers about how leadership should occur in organizations today.

Recently, I came across a thinker in the Non-Violent Communication community, Miki Kashtan of Bay Area Non-Violent Communication, who has been ruminating about some of same things that concern me.  The use of coercion may concern more of her waking hours than it does mine, but in many ways we are thinking the same things:  Authority often becomes authoritarian.  This is a slippery slope:  How do we as individuals keep from sliding down it?  How do we notice the initial slippage?  As she seems to understand from her reading of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2010 New Yorker article “Small Change:  Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” some amount of hierarchy may be necessary to change the world.  And most dedicated agilists do seem to want to change the world.

Layers upon layers of minders (read: managers, especially as opposed to leaders) quickly leads to bureaucracy, and hierarchy often self-perpetuates until you have many layers.  The privileges of position quickly become entitlements, and we can lose sight of the fact that our level in the organization is not actually a reflection of our worthiness or worth.  This, of course, is easier to see bottom-up than top-down.

How do you wield power without wielding a club?  Certainly, I’ve seen many times when individuals and teams demand to be told what to do at a very low level, even hour by hour, let alone day by day.  This can be frustrating for leaders—and for teams.  And the “just tell me what to do” approach is neither scalable nor durable.  It builds in decision latency without necessarily improving decision quality, which is the last thing many organizations need today.

One of the growing edges of thought in the agile community has to do with the kind of leadership required in organizations aspiring to agility.  At the team level, the most common agile frameworks encourage distributed leadership.  But as you move beyond the team and face government and markets and deal with long term strategy, the nature of leadership, many say, has to change.  Pushing a new product into the market and dealing with or influencing government regulation is a much different systemic problem than is faced at the team level.  In some ways, it’s more like what Gladwell described about the kind of leadership required to drive a successful civil rights movement in the article linked above, and, as he shows, that had some very top-down or centralized aspects to it.  In other words, various kinds of what might be construed as coercion were used among those we now think of as non-violent resisters.

This resonates with me and what I believe about what is required of agile leaders—the real kind, not the nominal kind.  There is a tough kind of listening and questioning that is also deeply compassionate.  There is a driving kind of will to set context that accepts all who want to do the work well and firmly endorses the choice of those who do not to go elsewhere.  There is a leadership stance that holds power firmly in its grasp without being defined by that power and with what in our limited language at this point we can only call empathy.  To reasonably ensure the financial welfare of the stakeholders in an organization is a loving act up to the point this generative impulse is overshadowed by avarice.  This way of leading can feel coercive because it is assertive and clear in its highest level objectives while constantly testing the context.  And the nature of the drive in this kind of leader is to face the facts about what is before us.

As Kashtan notes in her post “The Dilemmas of Leadership,” transcending and transforming our inherited leadership models is critical in order to lead effectively into the future, but completely throwing them out and not acknowledging what has been and may yet be useful in them is not likely going to result in success if what we want is large scale change.

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