The Incompleteness of Hierarchy

Peter Drucker, the preeminent management thinker of the 20th century, died this week. Let’s honor him, ourselves and our posterity by picking up on one of his central teachings; namely, that, while powerful and useful, hierarchy is incomplete. It is but one thread in the fabric of management and leadership — albeit the thread most prominently displayed.

When matched to a division of effort that fits any challenge at hand, clear lines of hierarchical authority work efficently – even elegantly — to deliver effective solutions. The big word in this, though, is ‘fit’. Let’s say we work in a restaurant and the chef is overseeing a group of folks who need to deliver a set menu of, say, 15 meals every evening. Assume also that the number of diners varies within a well understood range, there are steady, reliable relationships with vendors providing ingredients and so forth, and that the staff has worked with the chef for many, many months. In this context, the challenge of providing the diners the 15 meals is well served by a clear division of effort and hierarchical lines of authority. Would those in the kitchen also benefit from respectful, cordial and constructive working relationships? Yes. But, such is the case with all hierarchical arrangements. Indeed, it’s a comment on our culture’s bizarre obsession with the good vs. evil of hierarchy that one even has to write this additional sentence.

Yet, even in this orderly, well understood and predictable example there is a need for non-hierarchical aspects of management. How, for example, will those reporting to the chef learn? Through hierarchy? Yes, in part. But, not strictly through a chef giving orders.

Still, let us all praise hierarchy as a part of what makes our world work well. But, let us stop this unrelenting bad practice of assuming that hierarchy is ever enough by itself. It is not.

And, as Peter Drucker saw over the greater part of his life, pure, unalloyed hierarchical approaches are very dangerous — indeed, they inevitably fail and, in their failures, cause misery to all affected. Put most simply, there is this: The vast, vast majority of challenges we face today do not lend themselves to purely hierarchical approaches. The challenges are too fast moving, too dynamic, too unpredictable, too chaotic. These challenges do not ‘fit’ a managerial and leadership approach grounded in order, clear division of labor, formally granted authority, stable working relationships, or futures that predictably extend routine pasts.

Whether the challenges have to do with restaurants — or nations — the 21st century will not yield either effectively or peacefully to strictly hierarchical approaches. There are many ways we can honor Peter Drucker for the gifts he bestowed upon us. But one powerful tribute would surely be to, as quickly and richly as possible, get our conversations beyond the all or nothing assumptions about hierarchy — to dedicate ourselves to using non-hierarchical approaches to discussing how we can respond to so many challenges that now lie between us and our best future together. There is a word for such approaches. Democracy.

But, to blend democractic and hierarchical approaches in a best path forward, we must overcome the illusion that either is complete in and of itself.

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