Creative Leadership: Tear down the hierarchies


The more horizontal and the fewer the steps between employees and the highest boss, the greater the creative potential of an organisation. In the small creative start-up company, everyone knows each other, both as individuals and professionals (knowledge, strengths, weaknesses).

The challenges and tasks are so many that everyone must be prepared to jump in where the efforts are needed, and the one who is most suitable to take on a task does it with enthusiasm and without regard to formal status in the organisation in a kind of “creative anarchy“. In such an environment, creativity, enthusiasm and spontaneity often flow.

But as the company grows, and more and more employees come in, inevitably, more organisation, bureaucracy and standard processes follow. A magic limit is about 150 employees. When this number is exceeded, it is no longer possible for everyone to know everyone else and then previous built-in internal organisation knowledge about who does what best, is replaced by a more structured organisation where each of the employees has a more specific role. This entails specialisation, but also losing the broad initiative and creativity seen at the staff level of the smaller company.

In even bigger organisations, more and more layers are being established between staff and senior managers, group leaders, senior executives, unit managers, department heads, division managers … Such strict vertical, hierarchical organisations are often adept at rationalising, but often very effective creativity killers. The more steps in the hierarchy from idea to decision, the more people can kill a brilliant idea by saying “No!”.

Also, the more of everyday decisions that must be endorsed by higher levels, the more bureaucracy, inefficiency and cold hands on creativity, originality and self-initiative. In a creative company it is vital that as much of the decisions as possible be taken as close as possible to the employees.

You cannot trim a big company into a small one, but there is scope for retaining some of the creative anarchist spirit from the start-up company. Google, for example allows employees to do what they want 20% of their working hours.

Other companies resolve it through a long-going delegation or that parts of the organisation are relocated. Many successful companies, such as Google and Microsoft have set up development departments (Google X and Microsoft Research).

Here, creative developers can work in a more creative climate beyond the more organised and bureaucratic production parts of the companies. The more strategic and long-term the work is, the more distant (both geographically and mentally) the development departments can be.

With increased responsibility put on the individual employee and the team she works in, not only the flow of ideas and creativity grows but also the job satisfaction and thus the ability to recruit and retain the best skilled persons.

With such an attitude, it is always the ideas and not who hatched them and from which position in the organisation, that are important, and it is imperative that all ideas come forward. Sometimes the curious janitor who goes between the departments can have a better idea for improvement than the development engineer stuck in his thinking.

Another way to mentally break down the hierarchies is to work rotate and temporarily try to work on other jobs, preferably within other parts of the organisation. As a manager, you get a completely different insight into the employees’ everyday lives, and for everyone it gives you greater respect for other people’s jobs, and you may also get insights and impulses that you can take back to your regular job.

Coming new to an organisation also means looking at processes and tasks with new fresh and non-blind eyes, which makes it easier to see opportunities for improvement. This phenomenon could be systematically used with new employments. An insight seeking manager can take the habit of consistently interviewing all new employees after a shorter period of 1-2 months at work for the purpose of making use of these fresh eyes for improvement.

This blog post has been inspired by:

Bushnell Nolan, Stone Gene (2013). Finding the next Steve Jobs – How to find, keep and nurture creative talents. London: Headline.

Sloane Paul (2006). The leaders guide to lateral thinking skills. London: Kogan Page.

svensk_flagga Läs blogginlägget på svenska

Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

2 thoughts on “Creative Leadership: Tear down the hierarchies”

  1. I think creative leadership is tightly connected to positive relationships in the organization. Maybe in one of your next writings you can elaborate your thoughts on that? Here is a nice staring thoughts article in my humble opinion:))
    By building positive relationships with others, we will be happier and more fulfilled and feel more supported, supportive, and connected.
    By Liggy Webb

    The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.—Theodore Roosevelt

    One of the most profound experiences we can have in our lives is the connection we have with other human beings. Positive and supportive relationships will help us to feel healthier, happier, and more satisfied with our lives. So here are a few tips to help you to develop more positive and healthy relationships in all areas of your life:

    1. Accept and celebrate differences. One of the biggest challenges we experience in relationships is that we are all different. We can perceive the world in many ways. Certainly astumbling block that we come across when we try to build relationships is a desire or an expectation that people will think like we do and, in this way, it is so much easier to create a rapport. We feel more comfortable when we feel that people “get” us and can see our point of view. Life, however, would be very dull if we were all the same and, while we may find it initially easier, the novelty of sameness soon would wear off. So accepting and celebrating that we are all different is a great starting point.

    2. Listen effectively. Listening is a crucial skill in boosting another person’s self-esteem, the silent form of flattery that makes people feel supported and valued. Listening and understanding what others communicate to us is the most important part of successful interaction and vice versa.

    Active or reflective listening is the single most useful and important listening skill. In active listening, we also are genuinely interested in understanding what the other person is thinking, feeling, wanting, or what the message means, and we are active in checking out our understanding before we respond with our own new message. We restate or paraphrase our understanding of their message and reflect it back to the sender for verification. This verification or feedback process is what distinguishes active listening and makes it effective.

    3. Give people your time. Giving time to people is also a huge gift. In a world where time is of the essence and we are trying to fit in more than one lifetime, we don’t always have the time to give to our loved ones, friends, and work colleagues. Technology has somewhat eroded our ability to build real rapport and we attempt to multi-task by texting and talking at the same time.

    Being present in the time you give to people is also important, so that, when you are with someone, you are truly with someone and not dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. The connection we make with other people is the verytouchstone of our existence, and devoting time, energy, and effort to developing and building relationships is one of the most valuable life skills.

    4. Develop your communication skills. Communication occurs when someone understands you, not just when you speak. One of the biggest dangers with communication is that we can work on the assumption that the other person has understood the message we are trying to get across.

    Poor communication in the workplace can lead to a culture of back stabbing and blame, which, in turn, can affect our stress levels, especially when we don’t understand something or feel we have been misled. It also can have a positive effect on morale when it works well and motivates individuals to want to come into work and do a great job.

    5. Manage mobile technology. By now, pretty much everyone has a mobile phone and many people have two or more. While they are a lifesaver in an emergency, and an effective tool for communication, they also can be a complete distraction when people exhibit a lack of mobile phone etiquette.

    6. Learn to give and take feedback. Feedback, in my opinion, is the food of progress, and while it may not always taste great, it can be very good for you. The ability to provide constructive feedback to others helps them to tap into their personal potential and can help to forge positive and mutually beneficial relationships. From your own personal perspective, any feedback you receive is free information and you can choose whether you want to take it on board or not. It can help you to tap into your blind spot and get a different perspective.

    7. Learn to trust more. A long time ago, my brother and I had a philosophical debate about what was more important in a relationship—love, trust, or passion. I was a lot younger and more naive then and caught up in the heady rollercoaster of sensation seeking. I have grown to understand, however, that trust is hugely important in any relationship. Years later, I bought my brother a photograph of a little girl who was smiling and staring confidently at the camera with an elephant’s foot just above her head. The caption was: “To trust is more important than love.” I believe that sentiment is true because no love will last without equal amounts of respect and trust.

    8. Develop empathy. There is a great expression that I learned a long time ago: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

    Empathy and understanding builds connection between people. It is a state of perceiving and relating to another person’s feelings and needs without blaming, giving advice, or trying to fix the situation. Empathy also means “reading” another person’s inner state and interpreting it in a way that will help the other person and offer support and develop mutual trust.

    Every relationship we have can teach us something, and by building positive relationships with others, we will be happier and more fulfilled and feel more supported, supportive, and connected.

    Quick Tips

    Ensure that the relationship you have with yourself is a positive one.
    Accept and celebrate the fact that we are all different.
    Actively listen to hear what other people have to say.
    Give people time and “be present” when you are with them.
    Develop and work on your communication skills.
    Manage mobile technology and be aware of its pitfalls.
    Learn to give and take constructive feedback.
    Open your heart and find the courage to trust.
    Learn to be more understanding and empathetic.
    Treat people as you would like to be treated yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Delia for your long and very wise comment! These are really good advice, and of course equally important in the private and in the work life. I see the theme through many of your tips is abut active listening, giving your undvided attention and seeing the beauty in the persons around you. This is a beautiful way of treating yourself and other persons.
      I am planning on writing about the importance of listening in an upcoming blog post, but will also take on your challenge of writing more on relationships, an issue I have been thinking a lot of recently.
      Thanks again for taking your time to comment, and wishing you a beautiful day with many smiles and laughters.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: