Turn the Organizational Pyramid Upside Down?

“Too many leaders have been conditioned to think of leadership only in terms of power and control,” says best-selling business author Ken Blanchard in the July/August issue of Chief Learning Officer magazine. “But there is a better way to lead—one that combines equal parts serving and leading. This kind of leadership requires a special kind of leader—a servant leader.”

In this model, leaders have to be prepared to play two different roles in the organization.

The first is a strategic leadership role: setting the vision and direction for the organization. As Blanchard explains, “All good leadership begins with establishing a compelling vision for your organization that tells people who you are (your purpose), where you’re going (your picture of the future), and what will guide your journey (your values).”

Blanchard describes how the traditional hierarchical pyramid works well for setting the vision and direction of the organization. While leaders should involve experienced people in this phase of leadership, the ultimate responsibility remains with the leaders themselves and cannot be delegated to others.

But once people are clear on where they are going, the leader needs to turn the company’s organizational chart upside down.  Mentally and symbolically, this illustrates the critical need of leaders to serve the people who are closest to the customer when it comes to implementation.

Many organizations and leaders get into trouble during the implementation phase, says Blanchard. “When the traditional hierarchical pyramid is kept in place for implementation, who do people think they work for? The people above them. All the energy of the organization moves up the hierarchy, away from the customers and the frontline folks who are closest to the action. When there is a conflict between what customers want and what the boss wants, the boss wins.”

Leaders Working for their People

Blanchard shares a great story about when his daughter, Debbie, was in college and working at Nordstrom. One day over lunch, she said, “Dad, I have a really unusual boss. At least two or three times a day, he asks me, ‘Debbie, is there any way I can help you?’ He acts like he works for me!’” Blanchard smiles when he recounts the story. “That’s exactly right, Debbie,” he said to his daughter. “At Nordstrom, you’re able to say ‘no problem’ to a customer without checking with your boss. That’s why they’re known for their great service mindset.”

Blanchard also points to a mirror vs. window metaphor Jim Collins uses in his best-selling book Good to Great.  When things are going well in an organization run by a top-down leader, that type of leader tends to look in the mirror, beat on their chest, and declare, “Look at what I’ve accomplished.” But when things go wrong, this leader looks out the window to see who to blame for the failure.

“Servant leaders approach it in the opposite way,” says Blanchard. “When things go wrong, they look in the mirror and consider what they could have done differently. When things go well, they look out the window to see who they can praise.”

“What kind of leader would you rather work for?” asks Blanchard in closing. By combining equal parts serving and leading, a servant leader creates a balance that produces both great results and great human satisfaction.

You can read the complete article in the July/August issue of Chief Learning Officer.

4 thoughts on “Turn the Organizational Pyramid Upside Down?

    • Hi Jon–thanks for asking that question. I’m hoping we can get others to share their experience with setting strategic vision as a group. In our experience here at The Ken Blanchard Companies, it is important to include others in the process, but ultimately it is senior leadership that sorts through the possibilities and sets the course. What have others seen work?

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