The Pros of Non-Hierarchical Leadership

A recent article online explored the possibilities of non-hierarchical leadership, a concept I find appealing. Rather than having a fixed hierarchy so that one person in a work group is always a leader, one company allows for varying leadership, depending on the challenge that is being addressed.

The piece, posted to the website of WEBUR, Boston’s NPR news station, looks at the model of leadership used by a company called W.L. Gore. “I think, as it looks in practice, it’s pretty dynamic, where we organize more around opportunity. It’s pretty fluid, versus it’s kind of a static organization. I think the leadership moves based on what problem’s being solved,” the article quotes W.L. Gore’s CEO, Terri Kelly, as saying.

It appears to me that non-hierarchical leadership recognizes that one person, no matter how experienced, will never be the master of everything. So, instead of having a person who, for instance, may know precisely nothing about Web design leading a younger person who knows quite a bit on the subject, this new model of leadership would turn the tables and let the “junior” underling take charge. Frightening for the grizzled, old manager, but exciting for the ever-evolving manager who never wants to stop learning, and can recognize that there are times a less experienced employee may know more than him.

The problem with leadership that stays fixed, so that one person is in charge regardless of the project, is that it can force the manager to pretend to be more skilled than she really is. In the case of my own current boss, it means feigning expertise on any and all topics as long as a couple of articles on the subject have been read. It would hurt his ego, but it would be infinitely more productive if his boss, the department head, took an honest look at my manager’s skill set, my skill set, and those of my peers, and decided on a project-by-project basis, who the most competent leader would be.

In addition to the pragmatism of putting the most competent person for any given project in the lead, rotating leadership means all employees eventually are given a chance to prove themselves as candidates for promotion and greater long-term responsibility. Today, at many companies, the boss takes credit for the accomplishments of his work group, regardless of how big or (often) small his actual role was. He is always the official leader of the work group’s projects, so he is also always the official leader of all of the work group’s accomplishments. We all know this scenario is seldom true. There may be some projects the leader can really lead on, but there are many others for which he must lean heavily on those “junior” to him.

Along with putting the best person in leadership for each project, and the broadening of opportunity and recognition, non-hierarchical leadership allows for a diversity of input. Rather than the ideas and resulting products always coming from the same small group of people, non-hierarchical leadership allows for people who might not otherwise be taken as seriously to push their brainchildren forward. You can argue that work groups have always allowed for contribution from junior members, but, in reality, the ideas that win are usually the leader’s.

I remember many times in my career when I had an idea that I thought (or even knew) was good, but I also knew it wouldn’t be chosen for the project because the leader wouldn’t want the winning idea to come from anyone but himself, or one of his friends or staff favorites. That’s just the garden-variety office politics most of us have witnessed, even though we’re all supposed to pretend it doesn’t happen.

Would non-hierarchical leadership at your company work? What would be the challenges of implementing this kind of leadership? What are the potential rewards?