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Flip the Leadership Pyramid

June 27, 2019
There's much to be said for the 'power of We.'

Over the past several years, I have written articles and lectured on numerous occasions about effective leadership and management systems. There’s inherently one important idea always floating in the back of my mind, and it serves as the foundation for most any actionable content I create.

I learned about the inverted leadership pyramid on the first day of my first corporate-level job in the mid-1990s. I had assumed the role of Environment, Health, and Safety (EHS) leader for a large chunk of the company’s business portfolio. My boss, a guy who would become a mentor and coach, sat me down and drew a triangle.

It looked like this: 

It was the standard pyramid used to explain the organizational structure. He drew dividing lines; splitting the triangle with the upper one-third reserved for what he labeled “thinkers,” the middle one-third as “thinkers/doers” and at the bottom, the “doers.” Off to the side, he wrote the words “vision and mission” and “strategy and goals” and explained that those things were predominately in the hands of himself and other key leaders to do and then to send down into the organization for action.

'Your next step is simple. You are the first domino.'― Gary Keller

I was assured that I would be included in some of this “thinking” activity and would even have sub-organizational activities to support meeting our lofty targets. He then wrote the word “ideas” at the bottom of the opposing arrows and explained that I should ask the front-line team for their ideas and send them back up through the appropriate channels for consideration. It was a safe bet in my mind that doers were not a large part of the “thinking” process.

He went on to draw several circles within the triangle showing that he was at the top of the pyramid and was, in fact, the chief thinker and decision maker. He was the person where all critical information would flow via the various formal channels and through the other positional leaders below him. He stated that the more significant the information that required a decision, the higher the data went. Decisions would then be made, and the information would flow back down formal channels until it reached its intended audience.

He then went on to draw circles indicating a few other leaders whom I was familiar with in the organization. Since I was a functional support leader, I was considered a “thinker/doer” and expected to develop EHS strategy (thinker), but also be tactical enough to execute the plan with those below me (doers) in the manufacturing facilities under my care.

Quite honestly, I was feeling good at the progress of our conversation. I finally was on the corporate business team where I could expand my reach and tell people, those doers below me, what to do. It was the typical command-and-control structure where authority and decision-making power was concentrated at the top of an organization, stopping at the appropriate level and then carried out by subordinates. My thinking was it was my first day in my new role, and I had just moved up the chain of command.

It was predictable that this was not going to be my leadership lesson for the day. As soon as he saw my head moving up and down in agreement as we do at times to please our boss, he drew another triangle, this one inverted. Much like the last, but the dividing lines were removed between senior leadership and the frontline.

It looked a little like this: 

He then went on to draw circles indicating positions in the organizational structure, but this time drawing himself at the bottom, my circle above his with other circles indicating the various positions continuing up, until the front-line workers were positioned at the very top. He then wrote the same attributes we had previously discussed, but this time, they surrounded the triangle, and he explained that those activities were shared by everyone regardless of level or position.

Was there a punch line somewhere? After all, it was my first day, and my first, big, corporate job. I anticipated hearing some lofty explanation of why he had positioned himself at the bottom and why my circle was hovering above his, and I certainly wanted to understand why he had placed the front-line workers at the top. Maybe this was some analogy to explain some “new” thinking that we were going to “back” the frontline into our thinking process to communicate we cared?

 That was not the answer. He was teaching me maybe the most important lesson I ever learned in leading organizations forward: The power of “we,” the inverted pyramid.

Inverted Pyramid Leadership

What I came to understand later was that this thinking was not necessarily a new concept or even how the company was changing its organizational structure, but how I was expected to personally perform in my job as a leader in the organization. His role, he elaborated, was “to coach and mentor and remove the barriers” from my path so that I could be successful, as well as everyone else who had a circle. Why? Because, he said, “the most important people in our manufacturing organization were the ones that actually made something.” He was telling me to work more like him.

A principle taught in servant leadership suggests cultivating people to reach their full potential by giving yourself away through a dynamic learning environment. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant details this in a recent article in Forbes magazine: “Servant leaders are not only more highly regarded than others by their employees, and not only feel better about themselves at the end of the day but are more productive as well. They don’t waste much time deciding to whom to give and in what order. They give to everyone in their organizations.”

Leaders with this view believe that workers have both present and future value. Leaders consider it their responsibility to nurture others toward achieving their full potential because they understand that it also delivers value and profit to the organization, or in my case, delivered them back home to their families, safe and healthy and protected our natural resources. It’s simple; this style of leadership fosters a sense of organizational interdependence.

In Part Two of this series, “A Good Leader Gives Away Leadership,” we discuss how to change the culture to flip the leadership pyramid.

Scott Gaddis is vice president and global practice leader for safety and health at Intelex Technologies Inc. He has served in EHS leadership roles at Coveris High Performance Packaging, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Kimberly-Clark Corp.

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