Kill the Hierarchy! - Everyone Leads

Transitioning People Through Constant Change

This post in the series “Kill the Hierarchy” I explore how a flatter organisational structure enables everyone to lead. When everyone leads it means that every employee, whoever they are, can make decisions, initiate and drive change for the good of the organisation. A flatter hierarchy will be needed to achieve this. 

For an organisation to survive and thrive in a world of constant and uncertain change, the organisation has to be one in which leadership is important, but MORE important is a collaborative workplace in which transparency and creative freedom reign over hierarchical boundaries. This enables innovation, creativity, experimentation, rapid decision-making, agility and employee ownership, engagement and influence. There is widespread autonomy and everyone leads.

No one ever did anything awesome or great just because they were told to!

The ‘Kill the Hierarchy’ model shown the diagram below, illustrates the changes needed to move to a flatter structure, and it is these changes that we shall be exploring in this series of posts.


Everyone leads

Robert Townsend, successful Director at American Express, President of car rental company Avis and author of ‘Up the Organisation’ summed it up.

“If people are coming to work excited… if they know they’re making a difference in the world…if they’re making mistakes freely and fearlessly…if they’re having fun…if they’re concentrating on getting things done, rather than preparing reports — then somewhere (perhaps everywhere) you have leaders”. 

Organisations must give employees autonomy to lead. This needs trust and commitment and also a breaking down of the hierarchy. Everyone can make decisions, initiate and drive change.

There may be principles to guide employees or guardrails within which they can operate, but everyone is encouraged to lead to the extent that makes good sense for the organisation.

When everyone leads, they are held accountable for their actions and there is a no-blame culture.


When everyone leads, it doesn't mean that there is absolutely no structure.

Jason Fried – co-founder of Basecamp – describes how this works in his organisation when he talks about the customer service function.

“What we learned is that adding a dedicated manager and creating a hierarchy is not the only way to create structure. Instead, we decided to let the team be entirely self-managed. There's still a team leader, but that role rotates among the team every week. Each week, a new leader sketches out the agenda, writes up the notes about problems and performance, and steps up to handle any troubled customer interactions."

Jason goes on to explain why he advocates flatness over hierarchy.

“Moving someone up to a managerial position just because he or she outgrew his or her current position isn't reason enough. Adding managers to the mix sends a strong cultural statement about flatness giving way to hierarchy. We're definitely not ready for that now. I hope we never will be."

 The need for a flat(ter) structure

You can only have an organisation where everyone leads when you have a flat or flatter structure.

In a hierarchical structure with a command-and-control approach to management, employees will not lead. They will wait to be told what to do and all decision-making will be held by a few and directed to many.

Employees will not put their head above the parapet to make a suggestion or share an idea, due to the fear of being shot down! Employees will not initiate change, even if they are best placed to do so, because that’s not their job. Change is driven from on high - by those with titles suggesting that they should know what they are doing!

Innovation and creativity is stifled. The organisation is slow to make decisions and unable to respond to internal and external forces requiring an imminent or immediate response.

Employee engagement will be low, attrition will be high and it will be hard to attract talent.

Job Seek.jpg

Millennials will not be attracted to an organisation with a hierarchical structure. Millennials have a lot to say and want to be heard. They want to make a difference.

A Harvard Business Review survey (2016) of 1700 US workers, revealed what Millennials are looking for in the workplace.

It included:

  • Opportunity to learn and grow
  • Interest in the type of work
  • Organisation that encourages creativity
  • Organisation that is a fun place to work
  • Informal work environment

Hierarchical organisations just wont cut it! Organisations have to look at their structure and ways in which to flatten it - now.

Talent is attracted to organisations in which everyone can genuinely lead and make a difference.

Size doesn't matter!

Google, despite its mammoth size, has a flat structure, with few levels of middle management. Every employee can lead.

Google’s policy of empowering and facilitating employees’ work has led to a large number of innovations and, consequently, to the outstanding success of the company. 

Eric Schmidt was CEO of Google from 2001 to 2011.

Two of his leadership principles were:

  • Let your employees own the problems you want them to solve.
  • Allow employees to function outside the company hierarchy.

To make employees own their work, Schmidt provided a very broad definition of the company goal and left the implementation entirely to the employees.

He defined Google’s goal as: “Organising the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful.”

Every employee could relate to it and lead to achieve it.


Schmidt did not allow hierarchy to obstruct employee performance and allowed them freedom to create their own projects and choose their own teams. They were allowed to lead.

In short

When organisations nurture leadership on an organisation-wide level, the entire organisation and every employee will prosper and grow.

Everyone has a significant contribution to make and their voices need to be heard.

More over, they need to be able to challenge the status quo, make decisions, initiate and drive change and be seen as leaders in their own right.

Coming up!

Upcoming posts in this series entitled ‘Kill the Hierarchy’ will continue to explore how we flatten the hierarchy in order to achieve rapid and decentralised decision-making, employee engagement, high levels of collaboration, widespread autonomy, trust and respect, and an environment in which everyone leads.


More posts on their way over the coming weeks and months, exploring how we need to take a fresh and radical look at organisational change management, and the changes we need to make if we are to thrive.

In the meantime, please subscribe to my posts so you have no fear of missing out!

Also remember that older posts from me are available via the Resources section.


Karen FerrisComment