Beyond the non-hierarchical leadership model

Based on my re-thinking of the dominant hierarchical model in my previous essays in which I questioned what would happen if Maslow was a circle instead of a pyramid and tried to come up with a new model of the design proces that is more integrated and equal, I was thinking about a new model of leadership. I recently followed a leadership training called Servant Leadership. I love the idea of a servant leader, the leader as a service to the people working in the organization. But the idea of servant is still hierarchical. If there is a servant, there is a master. I believe leadership is a role, a function, a service that is equal to other roles in an organization. I think we should move away from hierarchical thinking. Maybe it would be interesting to see what happens if we let go of hierarchy and see all as equal. From hierarchy to equality. If we look at the world in terms of equality, how does leadership look then?

What is the opposite of hierarchy?

I googled the opposite of hierarchy. What I found was non-hierarchy. Haha. If you really don’t know what the opposite is, you can use the prefix non. Non-love. Non-being. Non-design. has some antonyms: disordered and free for all. Haha. As if if there is no hierarchy, there is disorder. Like there is no order besides hierarchical order. goes even further: mayhem, turmoil, mess, confusion, madness, uproar.

I feel equality is the best opposite of hierarchy. If I google the opposite of equality, I find in-equality. LOL. And antonyms like injustice, unfairness, disagreement, conflict. So hierarchy and equality both have no clear opposite. What if equality was the opposite of hierarchy? This feels right.

Our society loves hierarchy. We love to cut up the world into pieces and create hierarchies. That helps to understand the world, but — as with all things — this comes at a cost. The illusion that hierarchies create is that one thing is better, higher, than the other. I feel that is the biggest danger of hierarchy. I think it is okay to cut up the world into pieces but there is a way to do this without making one thing better than the other. We are all different and that is good to embrace but we are also all one, all the same. All pieces are equal, there is not one piece that is more important than others.

“All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.” — George Orwell, Animal Farm


We are not above nature. We are a part of it. This goes for everything. We are all equal, no one thing, no one person is better than another. No role is better than another. Especially around leadership, this is a difficult concept. Leadership, to me — and I think to more people — is associated with hierarchy. The leader stands at the top. The leader is the most important person. The leader makes the most money. The leader has the highest status. I don’t believe this anymore. I think there is another way to think about leadership, another way to lead.

Personal leadership

The easiest way to understand that leadership doesn’t have to be hierarchical is the idea of personal leadership. You can ask yourself what leadership is. Having a vision, inspiring others, organizing things, taking risk, taking initiative, coaching, making decisions, whatever you associate with leadership. This is not the sole responsibility of the leader as a role in an organization. Anyone can lead. Anyone should lead. Take responsibility. Take things into the right direction. Hierarchical ideas around leadership can limit personal leadership. If people think leading is the responsibility of the leader, this might limit their initiative, responsibility, empowerment.

Equality leadership

This idea about personal leadership is pretty straightforward but this still operates within the hierarchical idea of leadership. This still sees the role of the leader as a hierarchical position under which you also have personal leadership. The type of leadership I am talking about is non-hierarchical. It sees all as equal. It still sees that there are different roles, but not one is better than another. The leader role doesn’t stand above the others in the organization. But between them, as equal, just fulfilling a specific role, performing certain tasks, delivering certain services.

I feel we can still have different roles in an organization if all are equal. There are people that execute (do things), there are people that organize that work and there are people that lead. If we draw these three roles as equal circles, overlaps are created. Between organization and execution, there is project management. Between leadership and execution, there is coaching of personal development, personal leadership. And between organization and leadership, there is process and the development thereof. I see decisions being made in the middle of it all, taking into account strategic considerations of the leader, organizational considerations and operational considerations.

Non-hierarchical or equal leadership model

From this, I see three major services of the leader emerge: coaching, architecting the organization and helping with the making of decisions in a product-owner-type-of-way (PO).


One can have different ideas about leadership and this equal leadership or non-hierarchical leadership idea is one of them. It’s the one that I like and I haven’t seen around that much. I feel it might just be the way, a way, of the future. The hierarchical model of leadership has been around for a while and it works. People work in organizations and they make money and all of that. But I feel the hierarchical thinking model that is behind it has deeper and more profound ripple effects than we imagine. Hierarchical thinking in itself might just be causing much of the problems we are facing today in the world. But on a smaller scale, I witness the negative effects of hierarchical, authoritative leadership when I look around me. This week I had the opportunity to have a meeting with a hyper traditional text book hierarchical authoritative leader. This person gets things done. He improves the bottom line of the company. The fear that is the basis of this leadership style drives the people to action. It works. That is also the problem. It is based on fear and is bathed in negative energy. All the people that were in the meeting had some form of coping strategy that felt inhuman. From ducking to yes nodding to saying nothing and being invisible. There was no empowerment, no creativity, no helping, no co-creation. It’s not that traditional hierarchical leadership doesn’t work. It does. But there is another way that is more empowering. Its more complex, more equal, more iterative, more embracing uncertainty, more creating connections, more co-creation, more open communication, more openness, and all of that. All the things we need to solve the complex problems we are facing. Hierarchical leadership is dangerously simple thinking. The complex problems of today demand a different mental model of the world and a different energy. And the mental model around leadership lies at the core of this I feel. If this is based on love and equality, this might just be a good start to change into a mental model of the world that will empower us to solve the problems we face in a different way. I feel we need that.

As things go when I write about these things, things pop up. A few day later, I come across this article in HBR in which they outline the dramatic downsides and costs of a cut-throat way of working: health problems cost, lack of engagement costs and loyalty cost. But forget about costs, who in their right mind would put finances over health? Read it here:

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button so I know I connected with you. Let me know what you think in the comments. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to see new articles in your timeline or talk to my bot at :) You can also find me on Instagram. When I am not blogging about Design Leadership, I work as a design strategist and project manager at Zuiderlicht.



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Dennis Hambeukers

Dennis Hambeukers


Design Thinker, Agile Evangelist, Practical Strategist, Creativity Facilitator, Business Artist, Corporate Rebel, Product Owner