• Christian Cunningham

On Leadership: What Makes Hierarchies Work?




One of the things I have found most fascinating to grapple with from a leadership point of view is the tension that can exist around hierarchies in teams. Whether it is company org structures, the local sports club or even the local street gang – we need to be very aware of their challenges to ensure they function.


Many of the animal species on this planet have what we call dominance hierarchies, or ‘pecking orders’ of sorts, particularly among mammals. This can literally mean that the 'alpha' male and female can gain access to food before others, better perches or resting areas, as well as other preferential treatment.


Interestingly, while strength and occasional aggression is useful in reaching the top of a dominance hierarchy among chimpanzees (one of our closest DNA relatives), it is not always predicated on being the largest or the most aggressive. Leading the group will often fall on the ability to form coalitions, show a mix of strength and empathy, and calm arguments when they break out.

While this can overlap into our more human hierarchies on occasion, they are not often based on 'dominance' in a professional or work setting – more around issues of competence, tenure, political manoeuvring and at on occasion, nepotism.


You can shy away from these issues, call your company a ‘flat’ structure or any buzz word you like, but the reality is these leadership hierarchies always exist. It then becomes a matter of is this working for us, or against us?


So, what do we need to make these leadership hierarchies work?


If you are at the bottom or middle of a leadership hierarchy, some key things you may look for to give credibility to those ahead of you might be:


  • How competent are the people at the top of these team hierarchies (or at least those ahead of me)?

  • Are there clear pathways of advancement, and an understanding of what is required to progress up the tree?

  • When it is obvious that someone is not competent in their position within these hierarchies, are they re-deployed to a more suitable role or indeed, replaced?

  • Are the people ahead of me in the leadership hierarchy there because of competence, tenure, political manoeuvring or nepotism?


These are serious questions! Even a well thought out org chart will unravel under these types of issues, and the sad truth is these only have to be ‘perceptions’ to create problems.


So, what can you do?


Promote on competence

I know this sounds simple, but we first must identify what actual competence is required for leadership within particular hierarchies. A very common example is top salespeople or highly technical people being promoted to leadership and management roles.


Despite having all the sales or technical skills, it’s too often the case that the management skills are absent. Teams quickly deteriorate in these situations and there are few comfortable ways out.


Create clear career pathways

Again, sounds simple but it is actually quite rare and a hallmark of very successful businesses. There’s a real balancing act in talent short markets in providing realistic career pathways, but it is essential if your hierarchy is going to excel.


If someone at the bottom or middle of the hierarchy sees a genuine pathway forward, and your communication of advancement requirements are clear, they are more likely to view them as credible.


Act quickly when hierarchies wobble

Absolutely support your leaders with every resource you can, but when it’s clear the whole structure is at risk you must act immediately to either re-deploy the individual(s) in question, or remove them from the business.


If you can have these tough conversations and make the necessary changes efficiently – you have yourself a great culture.


Communicate with teams about leadership expectations

Set standards, be clear about what you value in your leadership structure and when people are behaving outside these expectations – act quickly.


If you allow political manoeuvrings, nepotism, or merely tenure to dictate your hierarchical structures, you are on the road to disaster.


Simple stuff to consider, hard to implement.


Happy hierarchying?