Conventional wisdom says leadership is hierarchical: one leader, many followers. But this view is slowly shifting. Organisational structures are getting flatter and workers more self-organising. Alternatives to traditional hierarchies - such as Holacracy - are flourishing. And, perhaps most significantly, there’s a growing feeling that effective leadership is flexible and collaborative, and that the first job of the accomplished leader is to flatten the vertical hierarchy.
What’s wrong with hierarchy?
One answer is that hierarchies slow down the flow of information, like 'Chinese whispers'. As leaders control data and resources, information is shared on a 'need to know' basis. This means only those with 'positional power' have the complete picture.
Are networks the answer?
By creating collaborative networks instead, information is shared organically, and in all directions. In this model, leadership is collective, with everyone taking responsibility for the success of the whole. Staff are more engaged, feel more trusted, and are likely to feel ownership of their work.
What is innovation?
Another reason to dismantle the vertical structure is to encourage innovation and negotiation - the flexible approach. While vertical structures ensure clear accountability, cooperative structures facilitate learning and improvement.
Of course, not everyone is singing the praises of this brave new non-hierarchical world, and some organisations may be unwilling to relinquish the old one. Others see the benefits of change, but struggle to implement it because their existing arrangements are so entrenched - structurally and culturally. But what if the need for change is so great that it cannot be ignored?
Radical organisational change
Hierarchies are the dominant model in the NHS - a vast institution that deals with more than a million patients every 36 hours in England alone and employs in excess of 1.5 million people. And it’s easy to see why: a vertical structure makes it straightforward to replicate processes - a big advantage at this scale and complexity.
Clearly, radical organisational change in such a behemoth is not something to be undertaken lightly, and history tells us it’s unlikely to attract widespread approval. But even in the NHS, top-down systems are under fire. Changes are already being driven from the bottom up. Dwindling resources and ever-tighter purse-strings are a major reason for this, but the influence of the newly empowered patient shouldn’t be underestimated. As Marcus Powell, Director of Leadership and Organisational Development at The King’s Fund wrote: "The emergence of the health consumer […] will have an impact on how the NHS, as a monopoly, provides its services". To put it another way, the need-to-know approach is out; partnerships are in.
Powell cautions that the NHS shouldn’t simply alter the way it provides services; it must make sure leaders adopt a "collective, collaborative and, above all, compassionate" leadership style.
Collaboration is key
What exactly is collaborative leadership? In Powell’s words, it’s "a new way of sharing power, ensuring that leadership and expertise are correlated at every level in relation to every task". This is in stark contrast to positional power, whereby authority may be at odds with experience or knowledge.
Sue Frith is Managing Director of NHS Protect - which is accountable to the Department of Health for safeguarding NHS resources. She believes that the NHS needs more collaborative leadership: "I think [it is] essential, particularly in a healthcare environment, both internally and across the sector."
Once, administrators were prized over leaders, and there were simple lines of accountability from frontline services to the Secretary of State. But as the system became more devolved and fragmented, the task morphed into one of complex system management. NHS managers became more specialised, echoing developments in management generally.
The future of leadership
So perhaps, instead of focusing on management - of people, data or targets - there should be a greater preoccupation with leadership. Management is important, yes - it ensures the correct application of innovative ideas and strong direction. But leadership is something altogether more valuable. Leadership offers the motivation and the inspiration to put everything else into practice.