Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Why Flat Organizations Don't Create Great Leaders (& What To Do About It)

For some time now, the predominant workplace trend has been to go flat and democratic – everyone working together in a large open space with direct access to supervisors and even the company president. Merit is based on your skills, creative output, and ability to work with the team. Leadership is about having confidence and speaking up.
In the book The Art of Possibility, the conductor Benjamin Zander describes this version of leadership as “leading from any chair”; any individual player can inspire and influence the overall sound of the orchestra.
And “leading from any chair” does work – the system has produced many of the most innovative products and services that we use these days.But the trend toward flat organizations also has consequences – and I believe one of them is an emerging leadership gap. As the notion of “coming up through the ranks” dies off, the traditional trajectory to leadership has been short-circuited – without being properly replaced.”Leading from any chair” produces personal responsibility and teamwork, which is great, but true leadership takes practice, stewardship, and a thorough understanding of how the range of your actions affect the people around you. (Just ask New York Jets head coach, Rex Ryan, whose erratic leadership style has been blamed for fraying the team and ending their season.)

Leadership is learned in two primary ways, by example and by trial-and-error. In flat organizations, when project heads are always shifting, there is no distinct model and fewer chances to practice.

As the notion of ‘coming up through the ranks’ dies off, the traditional trajectory to leadership has been short-circuited – without being properly replaced.
So what to do? How do we develop great future leaders while maintaining the benefits of the flat organization? How do we instill the development of leaders as we continue to shift from a hierarchical structure to a dynamic, networked structure? How do we keep the flexibility and freshness of rotating project teams (or “pop-up teams,” as I call them) while also finding the “still point,” the consistency and stability at the core of our work?There’s certainly no silver bullet; innovation can spring from any type of organizational structure, whether overtly hierarchical or flat. But there’s little doubt that strong leadership is central to bringing creative ideas to life. So how can we cultivate that?

  1. Hire for personality, drive, execution, and accountability. Skills and experience will always be essential, but today they’re not enough. The value of positive, responsible, and accountable team members who take action cannot be overestimated.
  2. Reward leadership. Clearly define what leadership means within your organization, then reward it aggressively. Often, leadership means putting yourself second and supporting the growth of the organization and others. It also means shepherding them into growth situations. Put them, with support, in uncomfortable situations such as leading client meetings, or giving presentations.
  3. Institutionalize mentorship. To fill the leadership gap, create a methodical in-house mentorship program with clear goals and a purposeful mandate. Mentorship programs can help new employees adjust or be used as a recruitment tool. IBM, for example, started its program to encourage learning and connect people in a large, scattered organization.
  4. Establish communication hubs. The faulty flow of information, especially in organizations that assemble and disassemble themselves on a per-project basis, is the goo that mucks up the works. Hubs can be digital, or they can be actual people. Appointing a communication czar or even just a referee, can save a project.
  5. Build a company of listeners and question-askers. A culture that rewards self-awareness and emotional intelligence is a culture of leadership.
What’s Your Approach?
How are you minding the leadership gap?

Scott McDowell

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Scott McDowell is a strategy consultant and a coach to new managers & first-time leaders. He wrote New Manager Handbook to help leaders in transition panic less. He also hosts a radio show called The Long Rally on WFMU.
load comments (40)
  • Jason Pelker

    “Hire for personality, drive, execution, and accountability.” Yes! This is the definition of a leader.

    I’ve yet to see someone who doesn’t possess these qualities develop them organically, so it makes sense to find leadership personalities (ENTP in the Myers-Briggs formula, for example) ahead of time. Even without lots of leadership experience, these folks are highly likely to step up to the plate when everyone else is ducking for cover.

  • Deborah

    I find it still difficult for organizations to find a way that “rewards leadership” in a way that is not tied to some sort of competition (sales) or obvious (sales) quota. I’m hallucinating that this may be because those doing the “rewarding” may not understand (or even exemplify) the qualities you have outlined here, Scott. 

    Personally, I favor the Zappos model of everyone, “flat” as “customer service” rep and reward being given for customer satisfaction. That being said, a company must find a way to make it simple and easy for customers to register their feedback and appreciation for members of the team.

  • Megan Merriman

    It takes a certain personality to be willing to be a leader, but it’s
    not something you can do well without education and experience. In
    creative industries, leadership positions are often filled by the top
    designers instead of by people with management training or experience;
    the person who’s going to have the most creative and best designs isn’t
    usually the same person who’s going to excel at overseeing a team,
    meeting deadlines, and taking care of all the details.

    I agree that personality, drive, execution and accountability are traits
    that make great leaders, along with knowing yourself and when to step
    up to the plate. I think different Myers-Briggs combinations excel
    depending on the situation.  Most of the time a J preference is vital to
    leadership.  They’re the people who will get things done.  N and P
    preferences are ideal for leading brainstorming, because they focus on
    the big picture and aren’t concerned with time.  For the day of an
    event, ISFJ’s make the best troubleshooters; they’re going to think
    through all of the details and make a timely decision that everyone can
    feel good about. 

    The best leaders know how to bring leadership out of others and how to delegate and empower the right person for the job.

  • ktillman

    I think what happens in flat organizations is that “natural” leaders more effectively rise to the top. It becomes much more clear who wants to lead when everyone is not jockying for the top spot because hierarchy is not the most important measure for success. 

  • Allan White

    There is more than one “leadership personality type”. Many good studies of personality types include examples of each type, such as Presidents and other great leaders.

  • ppgreat

    I think all too often people equate managers with leaders.

  • Grizzlee_01

    I don’t like the traditional approach to business leadership and I don’t think the two worlds can really be connected. To me once the traditional is instilled the humanness of people takes over. Well the humanness of the kinds of people who’s first goal is becoming management. The people who deserve the positions can never get to the top battling those types of people, because the passionate people aren’t going to put the time in to kiss the right butt, they want their work to speak for it’s self. The traditional way only reinforces this because it says that those passionate people shouldn’t be leading anyways when this is untrue. I mean just look at Apple, the board kept pushing him out as CEO and it was his own company executives calling him unfit. When in truth they were unfit and didn’t understand what he was doing and why it worked. Apple is why the traditional doesn’t work. The traditional may produce things, but they will always be only things because they never had passion put into them. They never had a the blood, sweat and tears of the designers into them. However an Ipod will always be a Ipod even a hundred years from now. Right now I can’t even name any other mp3 players by name, I only know who makes them. The designers of the other brands don’t have a personal investment into their product and it shows. That is why a hundred years from now Ipods will be collected. When the batteries or screens stop they will one day be fixed because they will have value, not because they were the first but because passion is contagious and people want a piece of the action to carry in their pockets.

  • Mdj3

    Maybe the problem is that we are still stuck with the idea of one individual as the leader. Many organizations are finding that shared leadership is more effective than vesting leadership in one person. Flat, democratic organizations are much more suited to shared leadership than hierarchical ones.

  • Grizzlee_01

    Because, while making things is important to pocket books, I create to be remembered and to leave a lasting impression. If were just making things that is pointless and I am able to make more money in easier ways. Its not really that hard to build a million dollar profit company in the US if you don’t care about the occupation, but I have a need to be deeper than that.

  • Dert

    Nice diverse image. Smh

  • Jon Rowett

    This article completely fails to make the case for the necessity of any kind of leadership. It merely asserts that “there’s little doubt that strong leadership is central to bringing creative ideas to life”. Is there really little doubt? Shouldn’t we challenge these basic assumptions rather than simply nodding along?

    Myself, I agree with Chomsky’s line that all systems of hierarchical control have to sustain the burden of the proof of their own necessity. Total autonomy should be the norm: if you want to impose “strong leaders” upon a workforce – something I personally find about as welcome as being stung repeatedly by wasps – you should be able to prove beyond doubt that there’s a real need.

  • Matthew

    Really great observations. I work at a company that still does things the old way – that is to say, it’s not ‘flat’. But I am finding opportunities to shepherd in growth situations from my position at the bottom, so that’s been encouraging. Thanks for helping me see the positives in doing some things ‘the old way’.

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  • Megan Merriman

    While I agree they’re not the same thing, they use a lot of the same skills.  How do you define a manager versus a leader?  Isn’t a good manager also a leader?

  • Vik

    I’ve actually found the opposite to be true. I lived vertical for the first 10 years of my career and have been flat with a new company since 2009. I find that flat organizations, at least the one I’m a part of, excel at fostering leadership skills, particularly presentation and comfort with ambiguity. What has proven to be a challenge is quality control. Without the hierarchy of practitioners that you would find in a more traditional model, the built in checkpoints that ensure great work don’t exist. As I’ve seen it, the best way to learn still seems to be mentorship and a Director with exacting standards.

  • Will Thomas

    It helps to rethink how we choose a mentor in this situation.  Rather than choosing them based solely on position or longevity (since not a lot of people will fit those criteria), we need to look for other attributes in a flat organization.  Junior folks in creative fields, for example, may have a couple mentors, say, one focused on the creative element of the job, another focused on client engagement.  I thought about this a few years ago (… ) and would be curious to hear what others think.

    As for those who posted here questioning why people need to learn leadership skills, I think the answer is that EVERYONE doesn’t, but SOMEONE must.  At the end of the day, somebody needs to marshal the creative, commercial, and support elements of a business.  A 22-year old college graduate who plans to be a 52-year old leader some day needs to take some steps to make that transition happen; it doesn’t happen by magic.  As Scott points out, those steps are changing, but that means we need to come up with new steps to take their place.

  • Leadership Development Toronto

    It’s important for a company to run on dedicated people. Its employees should work as humans, not as robots. Their minds must be put at great use, because the human potential is virtually unlimited. For this, a good leader is required. Being a true leader can help you use that human potential to its fullest and get the best out of your subordinates without stressing them in an unnecessary way.

  • Susan Smith

    Effective leadership is something many nonprofits struggle with.  Thanks for the article.  It’s very useful.

  • Scott McDowell

    Thanks for the comment. The experience will only help!

  • Scott McDowell

    Hey Jon, You’re correct that I’m operating under the assumption that leadership is good and necessary. I’ve got zero problem with challenging that basic assumption, though, and it’s true the opposite has maybe sorta been proven by “leaderless” organizations.  

    If our aim is to take creative ideas and get them out into the world and making a difference, I do think leadership is one crucial element that can assist the cause.

    Thanks for reminding me of that great Chomsky line. He’s a great writer and, if you ask me, a great leader.

  • Patrick

    I think by leader you mean a traditional “manager”. Flat organisations would benefit better from leaders that are “facilitators”. I feel the two words and how a person would fill each role is very different.

  • Robert Aaron

    Excellent topic for contemplation.

  • Hoby Van Hoose

    I think this article’s definition of Leadership is based on a presumed but not actual necessity for a persistant autocratic role within organizations. I don’t think teams need that brand of so called leadership.

    Going forward, I think leadership should be defined as whoever has the best combination of knowledge, persuasion, and decisiveness for a given topic at a given time. Given a different topic and/or a different time, the leader may end up being someone else. Leadership may mean convincing others to decide as the leader has, or it may mean the leader works alone. Leadership also doesn’t have to be narrowed to a single person; it may be a topic or decision creates several leaders at once.

    Without recognizing it as such, a lot of leadership moments slip by, unnoticed and misappropriated or deferred. Good leadership is about making good decisions, not control or hierarchy.

    All the functions that “traditional managers” are supposed to provide can be mixed and matched without perpetuating the tyrannical models: interdepartmental facilitation, translation, organization, scheduling, budgeting, priority, motivation, arbitration, reporting, and listening. These are roles that can and should be done in a collaborative or assistive manner.

    The other big wrong in the commonly known way is binding higher pay rates to “managers”. People should be filling these roles because they gravitate toward that kind of work, not to acquire more pay than their co-workers. Incentivizing autocracy with monetary privileges invites the wrong people for the wrong reasons to pursue those positions.

    In short:
    Leader = ad hoc decider, often inspires others

    On the other hand, I completely agree with your 1-5 suggestions for fostering leadership. Those ideas would probably work well in any organization of any size or purpose. Nice thinking.

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  • Gail M.

    My dad sent me a link to this article, which I found insightful. However, I couldn’t help but notice a typo in the third sentence of the first item in the numbered list.

    1. Hire for personality, drive, execution, and accountability.
    Skills and experience will always be essential, but today they’re not
    enough. The value of positive, responsible, and accountable team members
    who take action cannot by overestimated.

    Replace “by overestimated” with “be overestimated” and you’re GOLDEN. I’m a proofreader by trade. It’s hard to turn that part of my brain off.


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  • jkglei

    Fixed! Thanks, Gail.

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  • Tony

    In my humble opinion, looking in from the outside at an imaginary organization as described in your comment, as a potential customer, the lack of structure would instill some doubts as to said organizations’s abilities to support my needs. I understand the benefits of a situational leadership structure, and it might actually have some feasibility in limited circumstances where the integration of the customer is kept to a minimum (kept at arm’s length). But when you get to the level of actual “partnering” with customers, then where authority resides (“authority”as a by-product or function of leadership), and how it is utilized to respond to customer needs is important, if not outright critical.

    Maybe, if an organization is truly mature, then it can incorporate multiple heirarchical structures within itself, based on internal and external (customer) needs.   

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  • Rayan

    Thank you for the tip, it surely open up my eyes on how to maximize my already flat organization. :)))

  • Bhanu Pratap Singh Rajawat

    target always perfect

  • guest

     The problem I find with flat organizations is that there is nobody willing to put their neck out. Nobody has the authority to drive the work – kill someone elses idea, change things radically, determine that everyone has to start over from scratch and work all weekend. So everybody “delivers” their piece and its all stitched together into some mediocre solution. Then when it fails, nobody takes responsibility since nobody was really leading the project.

  • rob22t

    When ever I have worked in a ‘flat’ organization it creates in fighting and a ‘me’ culture where people try and dominate others by ‘playing manager’.

    There is no one to tell them where they are in the hierarchy there for its a free for all and the person who stabs the most people in the back wins.

  • Alexander Tiedemann

    is, indeed, a huge factor to a great and effective leadership. Yes, skills and
    experience matter a lot, but if you have a strong personality to go along with
    those two, you would make an excellent leader. In fact, the most successful leaders
    through time are the ones with great personality such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin
    Luther King. They have pure hearts and they have touched several lives and they
    will continue to inspire more people for the years to come. :)

  • Carrie Jordan

    Thanks for this. On point! 

  • Sarjis A.

    I think leadership is definitely important, but it is also the type of leaders that really matter. Leading from any chair I think works best, only when there is a directorial position right above the team leader. The director needs to keep a solid understanding of design, of marketing, of whatever the team has to deal with, while the team leader understands the mechanics of creating that product.

  • yinyangbalance

    The organization I work for lacks 2,3,4, and 5. They are all about #1. And they actively undermine leadership based on #1. The problem is the environment (lacking especially #2) makes people bitter and it affects attitude and performance.

    I spoke up about this once when I was getting reamed by the the CEO, that I never get any feedback when I’m doing something right, that they dont show appreciation. Well…what ended up happening was they singled me out and undermined my leadership and anything I brought to the table, while over praising other people, and praising me when I do isignificant things, like if I hand them something or carry something…its like “OH MY GOD! THANK YOU!”

    To say the least I’m looking for another job.

  • yinyangbalance

    The biggest thing about top leaders is to properly impose boundries for the lower leaders in the flat organization to operate within. Without this, the members of the group may find themselves questioning their roles and responsibilities.

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