A taxonomy of leaders
Suzan’s Fieldnotes is a newsletter exploring leadership, psychology and organizational dynamics through real life stories. I try to make this one of the best emails you get this week. If you enjoy the content, please like it above and share it with friends.
Hierarchies are a part of most organizations. It’s presence becomes obvious the first time we ask for permission to do something different and our boss tells us “They have to run it up the flag pole.” Less obvious are the hierachies that occur in leadership. We tend to look at leaders as a monolith. We see leadership teams as one body imbued with ultimate power. This misses the nuances of human nature, power dynamics and organizational decision making. It's easy to reduce it to a binary: leaders have power and the rest of us don't. This can result in a us vs them mentality. This doesn't help us move forward and it's not entirely accurate. Like most things, the reality is far more complex. Not all leaders have equal autonomy or authority in decision making. Many companies have hidden hierarchies, even at the highest levels.
Once in a while leadership hierarchies come from a conscious attempt to concentrate power, shutting others out. More often these taxonomies develop unintentionally from a lack of awareness rather than malice. Tech is famous for its preoccupation with experimentating with new organizational forms, especially those that aim to flatten and distribute power. Even when we state a desire for a flatter organization, hierarchies can sneak in. Despite the promise to create a better working environment, truly flat organizations are difficult to execute well. They take a ton of daily effort from the entire team. This makes hierarchies develop naturally, even when we seek to share power. Most often tiers in leadership are informal or implicit rather than spoken outright. This often makes them invisible.
Why leadership taxonomies develop
Sometimes unequal power develops because of the personalities at play, even when both are founders. A good example of this is WeWork. We all remember Adam Neumann but most of us forget he had a co-founder or if remember, we don't know his name. (It's Miguel McKelvey.) I don't know how decision making happened at WeWork, my guess is that Adam's big personality often took over creating an unequal power dynamic. Adam’s outsized personality likely meant others perceived him as the real person in charge. It certainly created that impression in the media. You can see spectacular rise and fall of this leader and the company in the WeWork documentary on Hulu.
An often unacknowledged division that can form is founder vs non-founder leaders. This can be really subtle and hard for founder leaders to perceive. They don't always recognize when non-founder leaders step back and defer to those with ownership. The other way this hierarchy shows up is in board interactions as most non-founder leaders have less access. It's not that non-founders should be at these conversations, it's that the lack of contact means they don't develop robust relationships with the board. They also hear information from the board filtered through others which gives them less context. This leads to a different level of access and hinders their ability to meaningfully contribute to organizational decision making. Non-founder leaders do need to ensure they don't shrink too much. Even more powerful is when founders become aware of their impact and how non-founder leaders might perceive power imbalances. This can help founders more readily close the gap.
One that sneaks by comes as a matter of pattern matching. Our implicit bias about what a leader looks like can mean we unintentionally exclude those who don't fit that image. This can be leadership style or demographics like gender, race, sexuality among others. Our assumptions about what "real" leaders act like or look like form the lens with which we view the world. When we don't examine our assumptions about leadership we view those who don't fit the mold as less effective, too emotional or indecisive rather than seeing them an equally valid approaches. This can lead us to see them as "outliers" and, as less important to include in early stages of decision making. (Perhaps the most important phase but that's a whole other conversation.)
A tiny example is who takes notes at the exec team meetings. Unless this task is consciously shared, it can fall over and over to the same people — often those underrepresented not just in technology but at leadership levels. It's hard to be an active participant in the conversation when you're responsible for recording what's happening. Over time these “secretaries” input is sought less. We begin to see them as an executor of details rather than a strategic partner, relegating them to a different tier on the leadership team. Hierarchies based on pattern matching are accidental though detrimental. Rooting out assumptions as a leadership team can help uncover this kind of bias, improving how the group and the company functions.
Leadership hierarchies can form in times of rapid scaling. As the company ramps up, the exec team expands dramatically, eventually becoming too unwieldy to move as one unit. These teams tend to break out for meetings while still calling it one exec team—most often into C-Suite and VP. The latter group is left out of key information which means they lack critical context. When asked for input it's much later in the process when some of the key decisions have already been made. This creates a hierarchy that those excluded definitely feel. It’s confusing and upsetting to be told and to look like you have autonomy when you don’t. At an organizational level, this division leaves out critical perspectives and can create resentment that can lead to apathy.
Another way hierarchies accidentally form is along the axis of experience. New leaders may seem less confident as they ease into their role. With their less experience, we unintentionally give their opinions less credence. Given their newness to the leadership team, others can see them as outsiders. If they offer a different perspective, more tenured members may write them off as uninformed. Unless they push their way in or another leader sponsors them, a split happens in the leadership team leading it to become lopsided.
What to do about hidden hierarchies
Assumptions about leadership and hidden hierarchies creep into just about every company. Unless managed, they can dramatically impact the efficacy of a team. Hidden hierarchies create alternative power structures, changing how decisions get made and how the business runs. The more we can spot and acknowledge hierarchies, the better we can be intentional with power dynamics and decision making. Rooting out these invisible bits can prevent toxic dysfunction from setting in. This benefits everyone.
We might be tempted to rid ourselves of hierarchies completely. I get the impluse. Hierarchies can become rigid and turn toxic. Still, there are good reasons we fall into hierarchical ways of organizing over and over. The natural world is organized into hierarchies and taxonomies. This structure helps them deal with complexity and to survive — it does for us too. We need to keep innovating on new organizational structures like self managing organizations. In the meanwhile, being more conscious about how we’re organized helps us be more intentional, mitigating harm.
The last three editions (this one, emotional contagion and leadership voids) are focused on the organization side of company life. Organizational dynamics are a constant fascination for me. I've also been working on workshops for leadership teams which might explain my recent bent. I'll write more about the intrapersonal and interpersonal sides again soon. Promise!
What else to read
Insights from a reluctant leader.
Why hierarchies thrive.
Hierarchy in organizations: when it helps, when it hurts.
More on our fantasy leadership self and leaders’ instinct to protect.
Written by Suzan Bond, a leadership coach and former COO. Based in Brooklyn. You can find me elsewhere on Twitter and Medium. Comments or questions about leadership or scaling startups? Send me a note.