What’s So Bad About Hierarchy?
Much of the ‘prevailing wind’ today in organizational leadership is blowing towards the ‘flat organization’ – that is, the fewer the leadership levels we have in an organizational structure, the better that organization will be able to accomplish the mission or task. ‘Bureaucracy’ is a bad word which implies sluggishness, bloated and wasteful budgets, unmotivated people, and a lack of creativity or willingness to adapt and change.
While the above characteristics of hierarchy, as presently practiced, are true in many organizations, it does not have to be so. Hierarchy in and of itself is morally neutral – it’s not good, bad, or purple. A hierarchical structure is no better or worse than a flat organizational structure that has fewer levels of leadership. Good leaders within a hierarchical structure can unleash creativity, innovation, spawn organic movement, empower entrepreneurs, and stimulate growth. The structure is not the issue, but rather those within the structure who are setting direction and making decisions that make it good or bad.
There are two important reasons for hierarchy: health and complexity. By ‘health’ we mean the health of the individuals within the organization. We want those we are leading to thrive under our leadership, not just survive. Leadership is not just about accomplishing mission together, it is also about caring well for those we lead. Having a large span of leadership with too many direct reports will not allow us the capacity to truly ‘know well the condition of our flocks’ (see Proverbs 27:23).
With increasing complexity of mission comes the need for more leadership capacity. A large task, with multiple facets, demands the contribution of many people. These people need a common purpose, clear vision, doable jobs, and accountability for their contributions. This oversight is good stewardship and need not be restrictive. It’s how this leadership is done that is key!
We have an example from King David in 1 Chronicles 27 as we see how he organized his kingdom. 40+ leaders are mentioned with their respective responsibilities – army commanders, family heads, property managers, an executive team, and spiritual advisers all contributed to David’s leadership capacity. The size and complexity of the kingdom required good leaders with many varied, intersecting responsibilities.
So, the next time we are tempted to criticize hierarchy, let’s pause a moment and think. Is it the structure or is it the leaders within that structure that makes it a challenge? Mankind keeps looking for better structures, but God keeps looking for better leaders! May it begin with us!