Non-Hierarchical Leadership


The following is a paper based off a talk given by Timothy Rodriguez at a leadership conference at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Cortland on November 12, 2009:

            The topic of leadership has been approached in different ways.  In any society with political, social, and economic institutions structured to function in a hierarchical manner, where the top few hold power over the majority below (i.e., established concentrated power), it can be expected that leadership will be portrayed, conceived, and enacted in a likewise manner.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that in dominant U.S. mainstream culture today, leadership is referred to, and often reserved for, those with some sort of power over others.  In simple terms, hierarchy, in a hierarchical society, is a given and isn’t openly questioned or discussed.  Within a hierarchical society, which establishes concentrated power, one can expect to find opposition to these hierarchical structures and a struggle for a more equitable distribution of this power.  Such is the case in this paper and talk about non-hierarchical leadership and its place in history and today in both theory and practice from small groups to whole societies.  The intrinsic values and lessons that are rooted in a non-hierarchical structure may prove to be critical in the development of a more participatory and equitable society.

            It seems to me that leadership can fall into two categories – hierarchical and non-hierarchical leadership.  I will, of course, be focusing on the latter.  The difference between the two tends to get foggy amidst rhetoric in a country that preaches “democracy,” “equality,” and “freedom,” albeit the society is built on concentrations of power, that is, hierarchy, which is deeply enough engrained that it reflects on its social institutions, such as education, and, among other things, the ideas and structure of leadership that is commonly understood.  Since we are not supposed to question the validity of these labels (democracy, equality, freedom, etc.), it is presupposed that our hierarchical society is the epitome of these values.  These presuppositions are deeply engrained, so it may take awhile to untangle them from reality.

One explanation of non-hierarchical leadership was given by David C. Robertson and Bryan J. Lubic as part of a compilation of research focusing on non-hierarchical leadership and the Social Change Model of Leadership Development (SCM), which is the model currently proposed as part of this conference.  Robertson and Lubic explain:

Our approach differs from traditional approaches to leadership that view “leaders” only as those who happen to hold formal leadership positions.  We define a leader as someone who engages in self-development and is able to affect positive change for the betterment of others, the community, and society.  We believe that everyone is a potential leader.  Leadership involves collaborative relationships that lead to collective action grounded in the shared values of the people who work together to effect positive change. (1)

Robertson and Lubic’s view on leadership is further captured by J. C. Rost.  As they explain in the same article, “leadership [is] a relational process rather than the efforts of an individual leader.  Leadership, explains Rost (1996), ‘is what leaders and collaborators do together.’ . . . Greenleaf (1977) explains that

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