The Mythical Pyramid of Leadership

“Flatten the pyramid!”  While the call to reduce or even eliminate the pyramidal management structure is nothing new, I have noticed it gaining volume of late.  The new generation of employees demands a less bureaucratic reporting structure, states one recent article.  The current speed of business requires a leaner operation, says another.  Often referred to is the company Valve, which has no hierarchical management structure at all.

What strikes me, though, as I look at the details of the demands is that at the core of the issue this isn’t even a matter of management.  It’s about leadership.  A reduction of management is not what people are truly seeking, even though they say it is.  Rather their aim is an expansion of leadership.

Our concepts of leadership and management are too closely interwoven.  Career success is to get as high as possible on the managerial pyramid, and the person that’s ahead in the race is therefore the leader, right?  Really?

Leadership is not about rising above others, it’s about lifting others up. 
Leadership isn’t about getting ahead of others, it’s about moving others forward.

People want to make a difference.  They want the freedom to lead.  But when leadership is falsely woven into the managerial pyramid it denies the opportunity for all but a few.  Leadership needs to be recognized as distinct from management.  Yes, managers should be expected to be leaders.  But so should those not in management.

When leadership is seen for what it truly is something amazing happens.  The leadership pyramid goes away.  Leadership is not a position.  And if there is no position, there is no pyramid.

Each organization needs to determine the management structure best for them, and as long as leadership isn’t tangled into this they’re fine.  In an organization with a culture that allows everyone the opportunity to lead, regardless of title or position, the managerial pyramid is turned from a blockade of bureaucracy to a stepping stone towards greatness.

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3 comments on “The Mythical Pyramid of Leadership

  1. Wyrd Smythe says:

    This triggers a thought that’s really bugged me the last few years. The off-loading of employee appraisal onto the employees. I’ve never really understood that. I look to my management to provide the yardstick for my work and then to do the measuring. I’ve actively avoided management as a position, because I have no interest in the skill set.

    My sense is that, over the years, management has more and more seemed to look outwards away from their underlings rather than inwards towards them. For years I’ve genuinely wondered what my management actually did for a living, what value they actually added to what our department did. As far as I can tell, it seems to consist of an awful lot of meetings and financial reports. They do not seem visibly involved in the department, nor do they seem particularly aware of what us individual are doing. No wonder they off-load appraisal.

    I’ve always thought the whole point of the hierarchical structure was so that the one I report to has a strong sense of what I’m doing, of being directly involved with the department. That then applies at each step up the ladder.

    • Cybuhr says:

      Interesting. By employee appraisal I assume you are referring to a performance appraisal. I have wondered what it would be like in a group to have a totally separate function of coach. It would be the manager’s responsibility to do a needs appraisal of an employee to help provide resources as appropriate. The coach would have the responsibility of a performance appraisal, not so much for assigning a grade or ranking, but for helping the employee grow and develop.
      So much expectation gets placed on managers. Why is one person expected to be the best at what the group does (best scientist, best salesperson, etc) AND be a coach to the employees AND manage the finances AND be chief decision maker AND liaison of the group at all important meetings AND act as mediator in conflicts AND be solely responsible for providing leadership AND lay out the vision AND on and on? Managing resources and coaching people require very different skill sets, but divvying that up between two people would present its own challenges. The trouble with the yardstick you referred to is that it often gets used as a club.
      Oh, now you got me all thinking again. Thank you.

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        Development is a whole other issue, and one I personally take for myself, unlike performance appraisal, which I tend to expect to come from my boss. My ideal would be my boss sets the goals, my boss is aware of my work, and my boss evaluates me based on my performance of those goals. If I need to develop myself to meet those goals, that’s a task I can take for myself.

        Good point about the demands made of a manager. It might be useful if employees were more aware of what managers do. As I said, I sometimes wonder exactly what they do for a living. They do seem very busy, but my perception is that it seems outward directed… more meeting the needs of their bosses.

        I don’t expect a manager to be the expert in whatever a dept does, I expect them to be an expert in managing a dept. In my ideal world, there would be someone else to handle financial aspects. But decision making, mediating conflicts, creating (or maybe co-creating) dept vision, yes, those are all things I expect. And this may be my lack of understanding, but that doesn’t seem like a huge workload. Maybe there are too many meetings that take up time.

        How much coaching do employees actually need? I can say that in my case, there seems to have been very little of it. As for providing leadership, aren’t we all supposed to be doing that? And again, how much time is actually involved?

        Maybe I just need a better education on what managers do for a living!

        As for inappropriate use of yardsticks, I would look to their boss judging them on their management skills, including fair and proper evaluations. I expect to be judged on my actual jobs skills. That should be true all the way up the line.

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