The bottom-up orgchart

I was drawing up some slides on the results of my annual Ethical Climate Survey yesterday when I came to the unavoidable “Tone from the Top”.

At that point it struck me how this choice of expressions transports the notion of a classical pyramid-shaped hierarchy. I asked myself how this is supposed to fit with our Novartis culture journey to becoming more “unbossed” servant leaders.

This thought had primed me to be in a reflective state of mind about how we “walk the talk”, how our leadership messages and actions are in line with our professed values…

A little while later I looked up some people in our internal organizational charts when a question came to my mind: If we are serious about pursuing an “unbossed” leadership style, creating psychological safety and enabling our employees to be curious and inspired, to pursue experimentability without fear of failure – then why don’t we start by the way we illustrate and talk about our organization?

Why do we still speak of the “tone at the top”, “senior” leadership, “top management”, managers and “subordinates”, people “reporting to” a manager or working “under” a certain person or part of an organization? Why do we say that “under” the CEO’s leadership the organization has achieved this or that? And why do we still draw the org charts top-down with the leaders at the top of the page/organization?

Wittgenstein wrote: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” I like this quote because it expresses so beautifully how the way we speak, the words and expressions we use determine the way we can perceive and understand the universe around us. From another perspective this means that if our language, our categories of thinking and the universe don’t fit together we experience „cognitive dissonance“ which impedes our perception, judgment and decisions.

I took a look into the Unboss book, too. The authors don’t suggest putting the pyramid onto its tip but go farther and suggest “cooking the org chart” until the lines become spaghetti and the organization is an interconnected network with the leaders somewhere in the middle. While I get the idea, I think we are not there yet in my company and even industry. This might come easier to the IT sector or start ups. I think, if you are in the situation that you already have a nice classical pyramid, instead of cooking it, you should first stand it on its tip – like Columbus’s Egg.

But when we explain the idea of the “unboss” and of servant leadership, we did use the picture of an inverted pyramid with the tip pointing downwards and the leader at the bottom of the page.

As long leaders are using the classical imagery of an organization accompanied by the vocabulary based on Max Weber‘s and Henri Fayol‘s theories of bureaucratic, hierarchical administrations, how can they truly have grasped the idea of servant leadership let alone convey it in a credible and inspiring way to their organizations?

It’s like a physics professor trying to explain quantum mechanics using only the terminology and formulae of classical mechanics.

How about if we started walking the talk of leadership culture change today and turned all the org charts upside down? Starting with the leader at the bottom of the page and then go up to the people and teams she serves and supports to be their best selves in their daily work. And revise our whole internal company communications around reporting lines, seniority and experience…

Want to join me in advocating for a genuine change in thinking, showing, talking and acting about leadership? Then like and share.


Cheers for your weekend

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