The End of Hierarchy? End of Hierarchy?
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Leadership speaker and author Bob Vanourek uses this image of professionals standing at different levels of hierarchy with an upward moving arrow on a graph to illustrate the importance of the board having the CEO/CFO's back while making important, ethical long-term decisions.

Leadership speaker and author Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek consider use this image of hierarchy to discuss the relative value of hierarchy versus holocracy.

The buzz has been big since articles on Zappos’ movement toward a “holacracy” were publicized. A “holacracy” is a system of governance based on self-organizing teams rather than hierarchical authority. See “Zappos New Badass Culture” and “Zappos Says Goodbye to Bosses”.

In a holacracy there are no job titles or managers. Employees have “roles” in circles with “links” to other circles. Each circle governs itself.

Stanford professor Bob Sutton recently published a contrary view that “Hierarchy is Good”, citing the natural emergence in all groups of status and power differences among the members. Harvard’s Bill George countered with “the hierarchical model just doesn’t work anymore”.

Maybe a holacracy is the “next big thing.” But let’s first consider our options.

Cisco famously constructed a complex, overlapping series of internal boards and councils a few years ago but found the approach unwieldy and moved away from it.

Of course Bill George is right that the hierarchical model, meaning top-down authority with bosses telling subordinates what to do, is passé. Today’s workers want autonomy, meaning, and challenge, and no single leader has all the answers in our fast-moving marketplace.

In our book, we advocate aligning people around a noble purpose, values, vision, and more as an integral part of triple crown leadership, as well as the unleashing of other leaders, who are empowered by the triple crown culture, not some remote boss, or soon-out-of-date policy manual.

Organizations, especially large and complex ones, need structure to avoid chaos. Structure defines roles, responsibilities, and relationships between the roles.

Most organizations benefit from authority levels that are clear and well designed. Who is authorized to sign checks for the company, or a new building lease? Who can decide if a toxic performer needs to be fired? Who can decide how much to spend on R&D next year? Who will testify to and sign the financial statements? Authority levels help answer such questions systematically.

So, how do we get the advantages of structure and authority with the flexibility of a holacracy, while avoiding the disadvantages of a rigid hierarchy and the potential chaos of self-governing circles?

The answer lies in an organizational structure with a culture of triple crown leadership (see our five practices in the Introduction to Triple Crown Leadership coupled with an ethic of entrepreneurship and flexibility.

In our experience, the best organizations often form Special Task Teams (or Skunkworks Project or Tiger Teams around problems, projects, or opportunities. The structure then incorporates flexibility.

Ideally, these Special Task Teams have written charters that define important precepts like:

  • Purpose
  • Values
  • Goals
  • Members
  • Leaders
  • Tenure as a team (they form and disband as soon as the task is done)
  • Authority (to spend money, or just make recommendations, etc.)
  • Budget
  • Communication responsibilities

Assigning people to these Special Task Teams is an effective way to develop their leadership capacities.

Core Concept:

We’ll keep our eyes on holacracies, but a powerful alternative is to create an aligned triple crown culture of shared values and stewardship with effective use of Special Task Teams.


Bob and Gregg Vanourek, father and son, are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, winner of the 2013 International Book Awards (Business: General). Twitter: @TripleCrownLead,  @BobVanourek, @GVanourek End of Hierarchy?
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