The Subverting of Hierarchy

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A decade ago The Cluetrain Manifesto was released as a prescient picture of what we are now coming to understand as the future that is fast becoming the present.

The Cluetrain authors, in a revolutionary style reminiscent of Martin Luther's 95 theses nailed to the Wittenberg church door starting the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe, posted 95 theses on the nature of organizations, markets and life in the age of the Internet. The entire book is available free online here.

The seventh Cluetrain thesis - Hyperlinks subvert Hierarchy - makes a point about information flow and access to that flow. A hyperlink like this one takes you to some other place in the online world. In this case, the main page at Wikipedia, but it could be any one of a billion different places. This ability to access information places power in the hands of people that we previously did not have.

Recently I heard Manuel Lima speak on the visualization of networks. You can follow his exploration of this topic at his blog Visual Complexity

Manuel Lima - VC - human knowledge

In his presentation he compared the French Encyclopedia of the 18th century with Wikipedia. As you can see from this slide from his presentation, the growth of information in our time is staggering. This growth of information and our access to it is forcing organizations to change.  From this one picture you can see how we now truly live in the Information Age.

Hyperlinks may subvert hierarchy but that is not replacing hierarchy. Reading Clay Shirky (See his recent book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations) may lead to the idea that we will see corporations go away, though he doesn't say this. In its place, we will all be self-organized into online social networks linked by our own hyperlinked profiles and communication means. This is already happening, but it is not replacing the traditional hierarchical organization.

For example, the free e-book, Managing Morale in a time of change is a product of the very phenomenon that both Cluetrain and Shirky identify.

The larger picture is something a bit different from simply being the end of formal organizations and the rise of communal structures. Instead, we are seeing a shift towards social influence that is more significant than simply the subverting of hierarchy.

Since humankind began to create communities and stop wandering as hunter/gatherers, hierarchy has formed as the power base of all organizations. Read Homer and the Old Testament history of the early Hebrews, there were always persons who held power and authority in a hierarchical structure that secured power and created order for their society. The difference between one lord and another lord was often (1.) the strength of their military defensive power and (2.) their moral vision that created either a just, prosperous society or not.  This is what we know of as organizational hierarchy up to this very day. It is the nature of hierarchical power that is at the center of the debate about healthcare today.

What Cluetrain, Shirky and many others point to is the realization that hierarchy's claim upon our lives has been loosened. I characterize this change as the end of a kind of institutionalism that is rigid and not adaptable, followed by the rise of social connection as the organizing principle of organizations. The hierarch doesn't really go away. It is rather transformed from within, and has been for at least a generation as the complexity and speed of life in organizations has grown.

Hierarchy of  Structure
Hierarchy creates order from top to bottom. Power resides in a graduated scale with greater power held by the few at the top, down through the organizational structure to lesser power held by the many at the bottom.

These vertically integrated structures existed for millennia on the control of the lower levels of organization. Control of access to information, resources and opportunity were some of the ways that hierarchy functioned.

In a time where most people were undereducated to their potential, and where the skills required to produce things were simple and repetitive, hierarchy worked. It is what made the industrial revolution so productive. In this instance, the worker in a hierarchical structure was only as free as their income allowed them to be. Dreams of wealth and advancement were not most peoples' privilege. Yet, beginning in the 15th and 16th centuries this began to change as exploration of the world, and tools for communicating ideas began to spread to the masses.

In our day it is hard to imagine a world without easily available reading material. However, prior to Gutenberg's moveable type press, the cost and time constraints on the production of printed information was such that the vast majority of people across the globe were functionally illiterate. As literacy and education became more common, so did the range of opportunities available to the average citizen grow.

Yet still, hierarchy ruled because there was not the means for any other kind of  organization. Over the past generation this has begun to change. Today, collaboration is fast becoming the norm in how business gets done.

Hierarchy of Relationship

Collaboration is the ability of people to communicate and coordinate complex work processes in an efficient and effective manner.

It is dependent on the ability of members of the collaborative group to work together, to communicate effectively and share in the rewards and responsibilities of the project.

Many collaborative groups function not by hierarchy, with one person in authority who delegates the tasks of the project. Rather many groups are lead by the "first among equals". This view also known by its Latin form, primus inter pares, treats the organization of work from the perspective of whomever has the knowledge, experience, expertise or responsibility is the leader. From this perspective, leadership is not a role, but the contribution we make within the social context of work.

In a collaborative project, with one person's client, the lead will be taken by the person who has the information or skills to address the specific need of the client. So, if a planning client of mine needs assistance on employee pension plans, then I bring in the expert on that area, and they take the lead on helping my client establish the best approach for them.

In hierarchical structures, leadership is a function of position, authority and power. In collaborative structures, leadership is a function of the character and influence of people in a social context. Personal character, communication skills and the ability to share power are keys. 

Network-Hierarchy Image

While this may seem rather mundane and ordinary for many of us, it is revolutionary in the context of hierarchy. It is so because it means that leadership is not held as a private privilege, but rather shared as a common responsibility. It is this way of work that is creeping into the hierarchies of organization as changing them from within.

It would be nice to think that this is all a very rational, forward thinking process, but typically it is not. Instead, when hierarchy breaks down, and goals and standards must be met, the last resort is to call a meeting to see who has any ideas for getting out of the mess.

What is pushing the acceleration of the adoption of this approach are many causes. However, at the heart is the access to information and tools for communication that the internet provides. The e-book Managing Morale in a Time of Change was the work of 36 people from 11 countries on four continents. The conversation we captured in the ebook took place over 12 days, and the production of the e-book a little over a month more. This is a model of the future in miniature.

What needs to happen is for companies to embrace the subversion of hierarchy in favor of social collaboration and allow for their businesses to grow from within at all levels.

I don't think that hierarchy will ever go away. It remains an efficient way to create order for the production and distribution of products and information that do not require high levels of interaction and collaboration. It It will lose its hold on society as people realize levels of freedom and opportunity that come from their social connections to one another.

Yes, subvert and elevate hierarchy to be an incubator of shared collaborative leadership.

This is the future that would have scared Agamemnon, Caesar, Henry VIII, Hitler, Stalin and all the little dictators who use hierarchy to subvert the interests of their people to their own private ones.

It is the future. Embrace it now, and learn to lead to strengthen hierarchy through its subversion to a more socially connection environment for work.


Managing Morale in a Time of Change can be download here.

Photo Credit: Flickr #382031318_17f9632b01

Primus inter pares - a strategic ethic of leadership success

The Latin term, primus inter pares, means first among equals. As typically defined, it is the senior most person on a team of equals. Robert Greenleaf uses the term as one way to understand the nature of servant leadership. Both terms, primus inter pares and servant leadership are principally about the character and relationship of leaders to others.  These are not descriptions of a system of organization. Rather, they are descriptions of how a person relates to people within a given structure.3dLeadership - Mission-Vision-Values

Let's use my Three Dimensions of Leadership diagram as a guide.

Primus inter pares, first among equals, is an idea that describes a relationship. It means that one of the people within a group has an authority that exceeds the others, yet they are equal in some respect. Their equality could be based on the roles within the organizational structure, or the lack of a specific structure.

For example, a group of sales people meet to discuss strategies for coordinating their outreach to the market. One of the members of this group may emerged as the defacto leader of the group. This first among equals earns this position within the social structure of the group because of experience, knowledge, or personal character. They may be the most strategic thinker, or the best at facilitating conversation, but ultimately, this person emerges as the one who makes the group function best.

It is important to understand the connection between the social structure of an organization, the Relationships dimension, and the organizational structure. Within the latter, individuals have titles, roles, positions of authority and responsibility. In organizations where the Relationship dimension is poorly developed, the organizational structure will more likely be hierarchical, segmented, resistant to change.  In organizations where the Organizational Structure is dysfunctional, meaning how the business is organized is not compatible with its mission and inhibits the people within the organization from doing their best work, the Relationship dimension strengthens to a certain level to facilitate daily survival.  In this instance, some individual will emerge as the primus inter pares.

The importance of a culture of primus inter pares is that it provides a greater degree of openness for relationships to develop. People are more free to exchange ideas. The organization thinks more strategically, than tactically, or rather tactics and strategy are much better coordinated because the communication and interaction level of the organization is much higher.

Does functioning as a primus inter pares enhance the role of CEO in an organization?  I believe it does. The challenge is to learn how do be a first-among-equals while also being the boss. The distinction is between the Relationship and Organizational Structure dimensions.

If the CEO, simply functions within the parameters of the executive role, what ultimately happens is a narrowing of the relationship network available to him or her. When a CEO fails to develop a relationship network as a primus inter pares, then there is a closing off of access to information.

Ron Burt in his two books, Structural Holes and Brokerage and Closure, writes about how relationship networks provide access to information that gives entrepreneurs a competitive advantage. The advantage is between the person who has a widely dispersed, diverse network of relations, and the person who doesn't.

Recently, I heard Meridith Elliot Powell speak on the develop a relationship network strategy. She identifies three different networks that leaders need to develop. There is an Enterprise network functioning within the business, a Business network of relationships within the business' industry, and then, a Strategic network of people who provide information that would not typically be available to those in the Closed and Open Relationships other two networks.

What these networks do is open up the CEO to learn what he or she needs to know that within the more closed, restricted circle of executives is not available. Within the closed circle, the CEO can act as supreme authority, but within an open, diverse network of relations, the CEO must act as a primus inter pares at least.

Within this network perspective, the CEO comes to understand that what he or she doesn't know is more important than what is known. Access to people with different perspectives and knowledge broadens the CEO's own perspective. The relationship to those outside the executive circle is not an Organizational Structural one, but rather a personal and professional one. There is relative equality based on the basic human need for trust and respect in the relationship. We approach those relationships with humility and openness to learn, and have perceptions broadened. And in exchange, the CEO provides perspective to those outside the executive suite.

Servant leadership is an ethic of relationship between leaders and followers. It is organizationally understood best from the primus inter pares relationship. As the first among equals, the CEO and other executives broaden their relationship network, putting them in a competitive advantage with those executives who do not. Primus inter pares is not a tactic for leadership success. It is an ethic for building strength within an organization. If the CEO is able to engender trust and confidence in him or herself, it will be because of both their competence in the role of leader and their relationship of openness and equality with people.  And becoming a primus inter pares within one's relationship network as a servant leader is a path to leadership success.