Top down, bottoms up, servant leadership, micromanagement; there are so many words that describe management hierarchies. To take a reductionist view of management, it exists to clarify communication and allocate resources as an organizations evolves. There are no examples of a large durable organizations that have successfully scaled without any hierarchy. Zappos, Valve and even early Google have tried different forms of this. It seems like no hierarchy creations friction, unclear ownership and decisions making challenges.

Our brains need to weave stories out of information, this is the cause of biases such as attribution bias and confirmation bias. Organizations are generally a tree where the root node is at the top and the leaf nodes are at the bottom. Levels, comp, influence, etc increase you reach the root node. However, hierarchy like any structure, can impose organizationally limiting constraints. Since managers are responsible for resource allocation, help with communication, career advice, and performance evaluation, it’s simple for this to extend this into dictating roadmaps, planning, and tactical decision making. This creates a negative feedback loop, as employees feel de-motivated they do less work, which causes more micromanagement and more layers. In this debilitating case, where ownership propagates up the hierarchy, root nodes make uninformed decisions, which results in worse engagement and motivation, etc, etc etc. This is the hierarchy imposing it’s conceptual downward focused effects.

What if the primary problem with hierarchy is our mental perception of it? There is a better way.

Servant leadership is a way to think about management hierarchy in a supporting manner. It re-organizes to enable the outward effects of possibility vs. the downward effects of micromanagement. Through coaching and guidance, it can help everyone in an organization own the opportunity. To quote a proverb:

“If you wish to build a ship, do not divide the men into teams and send them to the forest to cut wood. Instead, teach them to long for the vast and endless sea”.

In a nutshell this is servant leadership, the best leaders can teach an organization to yearn for the stars. Why is this important? As a leader, you have the purview and ability to guide and organizations to see past the near term. Line managers need to balance both, aligned by a vision and mission and be free to execute their best paths toward that vision. Individual and team ownership is critical for motivation. OKRs or goals can be used as waypoints and boundaries that allow leaders to help an organization along the path. Ownership and guidance set up positive incentives and feedback loops, it recognizes that organizations are complex emergent systems that can’t succeed in a centrally managed fashion. Servant leadership embodies the true value of management, helping hold up the organization, guiding via goals to where the opportunities exist and letting the employees dream and follow their own paths.