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Rethinking Hierarchy



“We cling to hierarchies because our place in hierarchy is, rightly or wrongly, a major indicator of our social worth.”


Harold Leavitt, management psychologist

At a time in history dominated by runaway social change, practically everyone I know would like to find a constructive way to modify it. However, the primary hindrance is our reliance on hierarchy in getting things done.

The Oxford Living Dictionaries defines hierarchy as “a system in which members of an organization or society are ranked according to relative status or authority.” The person at the top is the one we typically count on to “make things happen.” 

Unfortunately, the primary hierarchies we all know–the federal government, state governments, educational institutions, and multinational corporations–cannot act quickly due to their growing size and complexity. The top tiers’ drive to control continuously buries lower tiers in paperwork, rules, regulations, and the requirement to abide by a culture that inevitably inhibits creativity. And, of course, the greater the power at the top, the more tempting it may be to abuse it.

In spite of the dominance of the hierarchical model of governance, one example after another is surfacing of individuals trying to empower themselves through community. Symbolism always helps me understand an abstract concept–as in “The Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon,” which I wrote about earlier. In the case of a new concept of leadership emerging, I would like to illustrate with a different kind of imagery, this time about birds.

Birds of Different Feathers

First, consider the classic formation of migrating swans with a leader at the point. The other birds in the flock rotate into this position during the course of the journey. This compares with the sequencing of leaders in a human hierarchy due to retirement, death, failure, and election in the case of political power positions. It breaks down on one point, however. In the case of the birds, the entire flock is genetically programmed with the critical route. Human leaders, by comparison, sometimes get lost.

Now take the very different strategy of  “murmuration” among starlings. These dazzling movements develop in response to some form of stimulus, most often the presence of a predator like the hawk in the linked video. There is apparently no lead bird, and how all seem to function as with one mind is largely a mystery. However, one theory is that each bird has a communication network with seven others, which enables hundreds, even thousands, to act in concert.

This kind of formation is a freewheeling alternative to the migrating “V” pattern, and new ideas about how to influence change are tending toward this model, examples of which I will discuss later. The theory is that by activating communities, as with each starling communicating with seven others, a concerted movement develops. Let us hope that the result can be as breathtakingly effective as the action in the video.

The Feminine as Change Agent

I wrote earlier about the potential benefit of the feminine mobilizing to be a positive agent in cultural change, but this is a tricky challenge. For one thing, the misogyny visible in the last election has not abated and seems to be intensifying in some respects. For another, we seem to be living in the Golden Age of Incivility, and the effectiveness of a feminist leader would probably be sabotaged by verbal assassins working the media for prey. It may be wiser in the moment to find ways to work under the radar, so let’s go back to the starling imagery to illustrate.

As I said before, there is apparently no leader within a starling flock, and it is through internal communication that the flock navigates. One may assume that each bird contributes equally to the resulting vision of a living organism in flight. It’s hard for humans to get our minds around the idea that selfless and unrecognized service in behalf of community can be as satisfying as some form of elite status. But if the flock endures and flourishes, what more would a bird want?

And what about being even less than one bird? What about being one feather in the wing of thousands in a flock soaring, swirling, and diving as though guided by a brilliant conductor’s baton?  No avian hierarchy, no tiers defining status, no reference points among the birds to determine individual worth as humans define it. Commitment to the well-being of the community rules.

Just a thought, an idea whose time may be coming. I’m working on an idea in Santa Fe that I think of as kind of like a feather. I don’t know yet what wing it may help lift, but more about that later.


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