In today’s organizational climate, where leaders are being held accountable for shifting their organization from a white supremacist culture to a more justice-oriented one, critiques of hierarchy are a key leadership challenge. I often hear leaders express frustration at not knowing how to respond to these staff critiques of an organization’s system, and staff are often eager to lead even if they don’t fully understand the system. However, this does not need to be the paradox it appears to be. Justice-oriented hierarchies are not completely unknown. Organizations that use an organizing approach are often designed for leadership development, often with a membership model.
However, in my 30 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, I have never worked at an organization that exhibited a functional hierarchy. The observable hierarchy was often a racial one, with white people towards the higher end of the hierarchy as leaders, and staff of color towards the bottom as frontline staff—if there were any staff of color at all. Often, the lower-level staff does not understand how the whole organization works, doesn’t trust that it works at the higher levels, and is stressed by the need to work around dysfunctions. Sometimes, the higher-level staff does not understand or see the whole organization either and is not able to offer a value for their benefits in the system. And, unfortunately, often the highest-level staff is not capable of constructing complex systems that support staff in seeing the whole system and their role in it, or even views such work as their responsibility.
The ability to construct fair and transparent complex systems is a critical leadership skill, no matter what its form.
Hierarchy as a Form
At the simplest level of discussion, hierarchy is a form, a basic organizing structure, and like any form, it can be used to advance justice and injustice.
In her book Forms, Caroline Levine argues that all forms are political, in that they organize power. They all have affordances, things they make possible. She identifies four key forms:
|A unified form, or the desire for unity
It requires control of difference, the domination of “the plurality and heterogeneity of experience”
“It is created and maintained by acts of exclusion”
|A form across time, temporal order
The “time-bound workings of political power,” or the way time is used in preserving or demanding power
Such workings are techniques of normalization; they afford portability (the borrowing of temporal forms), but also interruption and transformation
|A form that allows the arrangement of “bodies, things, and ideas according to levels of power or importance”
“The most consistent and painful affordance of hierarchical structures is inequality”
It is built on binaries: masculinity/femininity, public/private, mind/body, black/white
|A form that links bodies, ideas, and things; as well as the other, more elemental forms—whole, rhythm, and hierarchy
A set of connections that “follow knowable rules and patterns”
“Their power to organize depends on the particular patterns of each network and the way its arrangements collide with other networks and other forms.”
Levine points out that none of us lives within a single form but rather within overlapping forms. For example, when it comes to rhythm, we may struggle “to balance work and school schedules.” And, while Levine considers hierarchies “the most troubling of all the forms,” she points out that when you actually look at how forms play out in real life, “the most strategic approach to the power exerted by hierarchies…is not always to dismantle, flatten, or upend them,” but to disturb them with intersections of other forms.
In fact, according to Levine, “hierarchies turn out to be surprisingly fragile, unpredictable, and vulnerable to breakdown,” and “if we consider closely the workings of hierarchical forms, we will find that they exert a far less orderly and systemic kind of domination than we might expect.” This happens because hierarchies are built on more basic hierarchies, binaries, such that there is never one hierarchy but a concatenation of hierarchies that sometimes contradict. Levine calls instances where hierarchies do not lead to the outcomes expected by domination “slippages.”
Hierarchies are fragile not just because of these internal contradictions, or “their encounters with other hierarchies [that] unsettle them,” but also their encounters with the other three core forms. Levine calls encounters between forms “collisions” and proposes that they “afford multiple outcomes” that can either reinforce dominant power or disturb it.
The goal then is to put forms “to work for strategic ends,” intentionally designing forms to advance social justice. This requires studying forms, particularly how they overlap and collide.
But, keeping our focus on hierarchy, it is important to also distinguish between functional and dysfunctional hierarchies.
In Requisite Organization: A Total System for Effective Managerial Organization and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century, Elliott Jacques proposes a systems approach to hierarchy, which he calls “stratified systems theory.” It is based on four factors:
“First, the capability of the individual, in terms of the modes of maturation throughout life of a series of higher and higher levels of that capability.”
“Second, a series of higher and higher levels of inherent complexity in work which correspond to the levels of capability in individuals.”
“Third, a series of higher and higher levels of organizational structure which reflects both levels of work complexity and of individual capability.”
“Fourth, a wide range of processes, including managerial leadership practices, to be applied with accountability and consistency.”
In functional hierarchies, levels correspond to task complexity; that is, each level is able to manage more complexity than the level below it. Thus, each level delivers a value in the system. Jacques argues that, as there are only seven levels of task complexity in a system, the maximum number of levels a hierarchy should have is also seven. He offers a framework for systems that focuses on the ability to discern, form judgements, and make decisions—at various levels of complexity. 
|Stratified Systems Theory
|Individual Maturation Bands
|Levels of Task Complexity
|Construct complex systems
|Chief Executive Officer
Chief Operating Officer
|Oversee complex systems
|Executive Vice President
|Judge downstream consequences
|Parallel process multiple paths
|Create alternative pathways
|First Line Manager
|Overcome obstacles, practical judgment
|Shop + Office Floor
Of course, most organizations are not large enough to have seven levels of hierarchy. More likely, they have fewer levels with decision making coupled across levels.
For Jacques, an organization that designs for both efficiency and the development of capability is comprised of:
“A universally-applicable organizational structure”
“A system of detailed managerial leadership processes”
“An equitable differential structure using pay levels tied to the structure of managerial layers”
“A newly discovered system of evaluation of individual potential capability”
Though the structures for a functional system are few, they require focus and commitment. Applying them is an ongoing process and the responsibility of leaders. The fourth factor includes a deep understanding of human potential and the process of transformation, a worthy task for those of us who care about justice and liberation.
Thus, there is a significant difference between functional hierarchies and dysfunctional ones. Many of the challenges to hierarchy that we hear in nonprofits, and civil society in general, are related to dysfunctional hierarchies, or hierarchies that do not correspond to levels of complexity or leadership. While power is stratified in hierarchies, so is, or should be, mastery. The difference between functional and dysfunctional hierarchies is the gap between the two.
When I worked in a strategy center for political organizing, the most advanced networks had leadership ladders. The focus wasn’t on the organizational chart, but on the levels of engagement of their members. Our biggest network had five levels of engagement: definitions, trainings and other capacity building, behavior that demonstrates that members are ready to move up to the next level, and a process for doing so. The structure clarified and made transparent the duties and benefits of engagement. While this organization had a hierarchy in both its staff and membership structure, it closed the loop by drawing its board from its members.
During the process of creating a system that clarifies levels of participation, or levels of leadership, we considered:
- The various ways that members participate
- What members need to participate well at each level
- How organizers interact with members to support them at each level
- How organizers discern when members are ready to increase participation/leadership and provide them with relevant support and opportunities
At each level members have both rights and responsibilities. They are entitled to certain opportunities—like coaching, training, leadership, and resources. They also are expected to honor the organization’s guiding principles and processes, taking increasing responsibility for those. In particularly effective organizations, the levels are integrated strategically, so that the work of more entry or peripheral levels is led by those at higher or inner levels. Jacques’ framework for what comprises a requisite organization is not very different from this.
I’ve seen leaders use collaborative processes to camouflage manipulation and hierarchy to advance justice. There are surely times when a nonhierarchical model is the best for an organization or system. There is a need to better understand when that is and what characteristics signal it. In my experience, nonhierarchical models have a high bar and require something other than hierarchy to hold the group together, such as a super clear goal, a high level of complementary skills, a history of strong relationships based on trust and accountability, and commitment to reflection and radical personal growth.
Ultimately, power is beyond form. Form is what holds power, and there are many ways to do that because power is not just one thing. Yes, power is privilege in a system. It is also mastery, clarity of vision, the attractive force of integrity, the ability to see and design for multiplicity, the ability to connect across difference, and the ability to imagine a better world.
It’s time to move beyond the stalemate around hierarchy and become more competent with forms.
- Levine, Caroline. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015. 25.
- Ibid, 31.
- Ibid, 53
- Ibid, 82.
- Ibid, 112.
- Ibid, 115.
- Ibid, 49.
- Ibid, 82.
- Ibid, 85.
- Ibid, 91.
- Ibid, 97.
- Ibid, 37.
- Jacques, Elliott. Requisite Organization: A Total System for Effective Managerial Organization and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century, Revised 2nd Edition. Florida, US: Cason Hall & Co. Publishers, 2006.
- Jacques, Page Pair 12.
- Ibid, Page Pair 2.