What is flat leadership?

Posted on Friday.10.16.2009


A lot of people who study management or leadership have been talking about this idea of “flat” leadership: a leadership structure within an organization that carries no hierarchies or fancy titles.

Initially, this idea drove me crazy; a structure with no hierarchies?! How can this be?! My mind couldn’t get wrapped around the idea of people not having to answer to someone else. A system where one single person didn’t have all the ideas,  power or expertise couldn’t work, could it?

In our current stressful economy, companies who’ve adopted the opposite, top-down system are crumbling day after day. Their hierarchical structure has failed them as more and more of the top executives, in all their power and “expertise,” have taken advantage of the old way.

Flat leadership has to work. We can no longer wait for the next best thing to be the end all, answer to our prayers. Look where that got us…

Here are some learnings from my limited knowledge of flat leadership:

  • Self-Leadership: leaders must be willing to lead themselves to a better place. She must figure out the people, resources, experiences and personal rhythms that will push herself to the next level. Notice that people are key, this doesn’t mean you are on your own, but that only one’s self is responsible for initiating relationships.
  • Team-Driven: at this point, if you can’t lead a team, you might as well not lead. It’s not going to be how much you can carry on your own, but how hard you are willing to empower others to carry more than you can by yourself. Expertise and competence are necessary, but you will be who you can lead, not what you can lead. Being more concerned about your team’s credit rather than yourself may just change the world.
  • Decision-making: if you are part of a team, it doesn’t require hierarchy and position to make decisions, it only requires responsibility. The leader has to be able to make the decision and live with the folly of failure or the sweetness of success. We make decisions all the time, as Seth Godin says, “No decision is a decision as well, the decision not to decide. Not deciding is usually the wrong decision.” Make a decision and explain to others why.
  • Trust: your team has to be willing to trust you. Does your team know you care about them and their work? Is it apparent in your own work that you are trustworthy to make decisions for others? Do you listen?
  • Great communication: you have to able to explain and communicate where you’re going, why and how you’re going to do it. You may have some of the best ideas on the team, but it won’t matter unless you can communicate those ideas well. On the other hand, if you’re empowering your teams ideas and thoughts, you better be able to navigate through another’s words and communicate them as if they were your own.

What am I missing? What other aspects are there for flat leadership? Is a non-hierachacal structure just a crazy fad, the next bell-bottoms?

Posted in: leadership, vision