Situational Hierarchy and Leadership

an anecdote

R. David Cummins
Sep 20, 2019 · 3 min read

We sometimes need people to remind us to think in “this as well as that” and not “this or that” and that when we change parts of systems without regard for the whole we will likely get consequences that we like even less than what we were trying to solve.

The word hierarchy causes a lot of emotions. In human groups — as in some non-human groups — there is always some kind of hierarchy. In my opinion, hierarchies can change depending on the situation.

I think it is much more interesting to talk about leadership — leadership changes as well — over time (as a development) and according to situations.

To illustrate, something that happened just last week and still gives me a feeling of inspiration and satisfaction:

Illustration: © R. David Cummins

One of our teams was faced with making a decision to which there was no obvious and correct answer. Questions with no correct answer (especially those with possibly big consequences) are usually the domain of leaders (or bosses, depending on the wording you prefer).

My partner Andreas Ollmann and I were invited to a meeting to discuss this question: of a couple of candidates for a position, which one makes more sense — and more importantly can we currently afford to hire either one? I expected that Andreas and I would have to make the decision at the end, even though we both felt like we did not really have enough information for the decision — but that’s what bosses are for.

There was no question of cultural fit — our teams have had a lot of practise finding new team members that fit well into the organisation. The candidates to be discussed would both fit well to the organisation and both had spent a few hours with the team to get a feeling for the team and the organisation.

How the organisation is doing and how well the team is earning money are also well-known data — but knowing the numbers and interpreting them is not the same thing.

What happened that day was like a dream: people started asking questions about the candidates, about what was really needed in the team — would the one (a more novice candidate) be what the team needed now, or would the other’s skills open up new possibilities for clients? Can we afford to pay the more senior one his desired salary? Ideas also appeared — possibilities to reduce the amount of freelance contracting, possibilities for other team members to take on new roles and use other skills. There were thoughts about the financial situation if things went as we hoped and thoughts about what it would look like if things stayed as they are. In the end, the team had their decision — one that felt good, one that contained risks but also one in which they had a reason to be optimistic that it would work and improve the team and the organisation.

There was no discussion and no arguing for a solution — each member contributed information and a perspective. Many questions were asked for clarity. Many options explored. Andreas and I still had a role as leaders — to ask questions, to provide some information if we had it, to encourage the members to rely on their instincts, ideas and feelings and in the end to sum it up and ask them whether we were observing correctly. Basically: this is what we are sensing and this seems to be the answer we are hearing from you. Is that correct? Is this your decision? The leader as moderator; the leader as a coach. A situational role — one that could be different the next day in a different situation.

Getting here has taken years! I didn’t even expect it to happen — I am still surprised and enthused by what went on that day.

This anecdote was written in response to an article in German (and other writings) by Prof. Dr. Stefan Kühl:

R. David Cummins

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Consultant, writer, speaker, entrepreneur |

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