© 2005 Corinne McLaughlin
Bringing together the best of both hierarchy and
democracy was perhaps the most important lesson I learned about
leadership in the organizations I've worked in. The principle of
hierarchy has received a bad rap in recent years in alternative and
spiritual groups because of the abuse of power by hierarchies in our
society, but it needs to be redeemed and understood.
Having previously experienced only oppressive,
top-down hierarchies in my life, I was naturally drawn to the
iconoclastic, anti-leader politics of the Ď60s and Ď70s. In those days, I
didnít recognize the importance of hierarchy, and I refused to assume or
acknowledge my own leadership, even when I was the co-founder of the
organization. I was always trying to be more inclusive and democratic. I
wanted to make sure that power was distributed equally among members of
the groups I was involved in--even when someone had only recently joined
or was clearly not very committed to the groupís goals.
This brought many painful experiences. I was holding
too high an expectation of other peoples' abilities and their willingness
to shoulder responsibility. When they didnít conform to my expectations,
Iíd feel resentful and judgmental. Even though I wouldnít express this
openly, people could feel it. It didnít exactly create a very harmonious
But I finally had a spiritual breakthrough. I learned
to take more responsibility for my own leadership, and also to see other
people more realistically. I learned to evaluate their commitment to the
group more objectively, as well as their skills and their potential
leadership abilities. I recognized the importance of creating a balance
of hierarchy and democracy in a group.
Democracy has an important spiritual core. We all
have the same divine potential within us, and we will all eventually
express our full potential. But at any given moment, not all of us are at
the same level of actually manifesting our potential. We may only be
expressing part of our full talents and abilities. In every group,
there is always a hierarchy of ability present, and this needs to be
recognized. This perception avoids burdening people with unrealistic
expectations that can cause guilt, anger or resentment if they are not
currently living up to their full potential.
The principle of hierarchy acknowledges current
abilities, quality and excellence. It recognizes actualized potential--
ability and accomplishment. It values leadership, purpose, direction,
vision, efficiency. Recognizing hierarchy can provide clarity and
accountability. It can encourage and reward initiative. It can provide
models of achievement for others to aim for. It can offer mentoring for
those who are younger or less experienced. Each of us must learn to
recognize whom we can learn from, because s/he is more advanced in certain
areas. (And this offers the opportunity to learn humility). But we must
also recognize whom we can serve, because s/he hasnít yet developed
certain qualities that we might already have. (And this then offers the
opportunity to learn responsibility).
The principle of democracy acknowledges future
potential and empowers its development, giving people the maximum freedom
to grow and develop. It provides opportunity and encouragement. It values
inclusiveness, relationship, listening, compassion. Equal opportunity,
political rights, and decision-making power are bestowed on all so that
individuals may develop their full potential. There is an emphasis on
inclusiveness, where everyone is equally honored and encouraged to
participate. This can be especially reassuring, especially for those
lacking self-worth or self-confidence.
However, I found that an obsession with equality can
come from a lack of self-worth, as it may be a subtle demand for
reassurance that you are just as good as anyone else. It can also come
from a fear of accepting your own leadership responsibilities.
Overemphasis on equality in a group can also lead to
a lack of motivation for developing your own potential, as you receive no
greater rewards for your demonstrated abilities, and in fact, others may
even view greater abilities with jealously. This can lead to what's often
called "the tyranny of the structureless group," where no one is empowered
to take initiative on behalf of the group, and there is an anti-leadership
bias leading to stagnation.
In fact, thereís always leadership present in any
groupóone or more people initiate new things more often and have more
influence than other people. But if their leadership is not acknowledged
and made accountable and transparent, it will go underground and still
affect the group unconsciously. It may in fact become quite manipulative.
On the other hand, as we are all well aware,
overemphasis on hierarchy can lead to arrogance and abuse of power, as
well as missed opportunities for new creative impulses. The limitations of
the leader or leadership group can become the limitations of the entire
organization. This can lead to immense frustration, with a continued
threat of rebellion from others in the group, or at least passive
resistance and subtle sabotage.
Applying a transformational synthesis to this age-old
conflict of hierarchy vs. democracy takes the best aspects of hierarchy -
love and responsibility (rather than power and dominance) - and the best
aspects of democracy - participatory inclusiveness (rather than the lowest
common denominator) - and raises them to up to a higher synthesis.
The synthesis of the best of democracy and the best
of hierarchy creates enlightened leadership. Democracy provides the
container to hold and nourish people's development. Hierarchy provides
the direction to grow into. As individuals take more responsibility for
the good of all, they are then given commensurate authority and power--
not the reverse. When there is a good synthesis of hierarchy and
democracy, leaders only accept as much authority as people are willing to
give them. Work gets done through inspiring people with vision or purpose,
rather than bossing or dominating them. There is an encouragement, rather
than a suppression of feedback, since good leaders know how to listen.
And leaders invest a great deal of energy in developing good relations
with all members of the group. Good leaders embody a balance of heart,
mind and will (or purpose) energy.
Enlightened leaders support people in developing
their abilities by providing equal opportunities and political rightsóbut
do not guarantee equal outcomes. Itís up to each individual to do the
best he or she can with the opportunities given.
Enlightened leaders create "power with" people rather
than "power over" people - a blend of leadership and empowered equality,
where leadership relates to function and "facilitating energy," rather
than to personality. Individual learning and responsibility are fostered,
as is a sense of team spirit and ownership by all members.
Enlightened leadership can be developed through both
change in structure and change in consciousness or attitudes.
Organizations can be structured so that people are inspired to do things
for themselves, to make their own decisions, and to take on more
responsibility. Leadership can be rotated and/or based on function to
avoid dependency on one person. There can also be team leadership. There
needs to be an institutionalized process for creating a widely shared
vision and mission, and for consensus building on major decisions. There
also needs to be an agreed upon process for giving valuable feedback to
leaders, and a method for gathering creative ideas from all parts of the
This new type of enlightened leadership represents a
change in consciousness. It is educative rather than directiveódrawing
out the best in others. It inspires responsibility rather than creating
dependence. It is based on the assumption that people already have the
potential wisdom and creativity within them, so the task of leadership is
mainly to encourage and draw out this potential, helping people develop
their skills and sense of self-worth. People are helped to develop
self-confidence and a sense of self-worth. Negotiation rather than pure
authority is the basis of relationships.
Over the years Iíve had the opportunity to keep
practicing and refining this synthesis of democracy and hierarchy in my
own leadership. My natural tendency is to over-emphasize democratic
inclusiveness, so I have to keep remembering to honor leadership and
hierarchy. Through our leadership courses at The Center for Visionary
Leadership, my colleagues and I work to nurture a more enlightened
leadership in the many people who take our trainings, especially the
younger generation. Weíve also worked to build coalitions among leaders
to create a new politics and to bring spiritual values into business.
Iíve recognized that the best leaders know how to
work behind the scenes and avoid the ego and power trips that often snare
leaders who must hog the spotlight. Iíve learned the special wisdom of the
ancient Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, who said, "Leadership is best when the
people say, 'We have done this ourselves!'
Corinne McLaughlin is co-founder of The Center for
Visionary Leadership and
Sirius Community, and she is co-author of Spiritual
Politics and Builders of the Dawn. She consults with
various organizations, and offers visionary leadership training and
personal coaching for leaders and can be reached at