Truly responsive organisations love authority

In the move from power hierarchies to self-management, it’s vital to learn to love creative authority.

Industrial hierarchies

Businesses in the industrial age became great hierarchical institutions. They were stable and lasted decades or even centuries. They employed the masses and delivered us the products we wanted, and many more we had no idea we wanted.

Hierarchies do authority incredibly well. Everyone knows who has authority — you just look upwards on the org chart. Founders of mega corporations can see their visions come to life through command and control of the giant machine they have built beneath them. They create the strategy and hand it down for execution like a general commanding a battle.

Growing pains

We have since learned that these formal hierarchies have some big flaws. They become slow, with decisions taking an eternity to pass up and down the ranks. Innovation from the edges is stifled by top-down control and bureaucracy. Policies and sign-offs are everywhere.

Hierarchies become de-humanising as the lines of authority represent power over people, not just creativity. The person ‘above’ you manages your performance and agrees your job title and job description. Human beings with all their unique gifts and quirks are stamped with a fixed identity at work.

Competitiveness is built into the operating system. You have to compete with others to move up the chain of command. There are far fewer rewards for collaboration and compassion. Not that competitiveness is inherently bad — it’s just needed in the right balance with collaboration, and a hierarchical structure damages that balance.

Post-industrial hierarchies

So in the post-industrial world we began to change the hierarchical model. We created matrix organisations so information and control can flow across the organisation as well as up and down. The dotted line on the org chart was born. And we flattened the hierarchies to create fewer steps in the decision-making and communication process. Managers are trained to adopt a coaching, empowering style. They listen as well as instruct. Everyone’s voice is heard and everyone must innovate. The company becomes more like a community, to be led by a compassionate leader, and less like a machine with a master operator pulling the levers.

But these are merely tweaks. By flattening the hierarchy, we replace long slow chains of command with management bottlenecks as more people report to a single person. A manager spends most of their time managing, not focussing on the work itself. Empowerment is an awkward compromise because the person above you still holds the power over you. You can only empower someone who doesn’t have power in the first place. A coaching management style softens the edges, but authority is still clearly cascaded from top to bottom.

Competition remains rife too. Now there are fewer management positions to be fought over. 360 degree appraisals give an illusion of equality but it’s clear only a few can move ‘up’.

Enter self-management

These flaws are the basis for today’s drive towards more networked, responsive organisations. Sociocracy, which has been around since the 1970's is finally having its day, with its proprietary cousin Holacracy getting a lot of buzz too. These new models are much more than a tweak to the old. They represent a new paradigm for how we structure our organisations.

At last, the hierarchy of power over people is gone, replaced by inter-linking circles. We might still divide work into hierarchies, but people take on a multitude of roles in the company, without a fixed job description and job title. People appear in various places on the org chart based on finding fulfilling and useful work. There’s no boss to ‘report’ to. It’s dynamic, and the organisation evolves as time goes on. Collaboration trumps competition in these set-ups which encourages innovation and genuine peer-to-peer relationships.

But these new models come with a huge, debilitating flaw.

Authority has become a taboo

Founders of many post-industrial companies are afraid of authority. They rightly don’t want to become the command-and-control dictators of the past. So they give up their authority, passing it to groups instead. It’s become a crime to talk about ‘I’ or ‘me’. Everything must be ‘we’ and ‘us’. A noble intention with disastrous consequences.

As well as removing the formal power and authority of one human being over another, these new organisational models have lost their connection to creative authority. That is, the authority to bring an individual’s creative vision to life. People are giving up their right to fully express themselves and live their personal calling in life. Instead they subjugate themselves to the group.

What’s happening here is the conflation of formal authority and creative authority. Formal authority can be stifling, but creative authority is the source of the passion in a company. There’s very little with more vitality than someone pursuing their vision — just watch an early stage start-up founder in action. But give it away and the energy begins to drain.

The myth of the organisational soul

To fill the void left by a lack of individual creative authority, a myth has appeared that the organisation itself has a purpose, like a soul of its own. The myth holds that the organisation’s purpose is independent of the individual vision that created it, and is guided by a ‘shared vision’ of the group.

I don’t believe it’s helpful to see an organisation as having a soul. It’s not helpful to treat it as a living entity. Instead, it’s far more useful to view organisations more like stories created by humans. The story begins when one person takes the first step to realise a vision — a creative act. All organisations start from a single seed and then grow from there. The vision of the founder is always present whether acknowledged or not. To believe the organisation has become detached from humans and taken on a life of its own is a superstition.

The truly responsive, creative organisation

Although there’s a big flaw in the sociocratic/holocratic model, there is a simple yet powerful fix.

The fix is to overcome the taboo with authority by separating out formal and creative authority. We don’t need to have formal power over people. When it comes to formal structure, it can be all about ‘we’ and ‘us’. We can build organisations with voluntary agreements entered into by peers, not commands from on high. However, when it comes to creative authority, we stand as individuals first. We should be uncompromising in our quest to find and work towards our personal vision. This need not compromise anybody else’s opportunity to do the same. We can work together in a web of collaborative, supportive relationships if we seek to understand the vision others are trying to realise and help as best we can, as we seek help from others.

This approach starts the moment an organisation is born, identifying who exercised their creative authority by taking the first step, perhaps by asking someone else for help. Although it may appear that two or more started it together, on closer examination it always traces back to a single individual — the source. Acknowledging the source, understanding their vision and working with it consciously is the key to founding the organisations of the future.

By fully embracing creative authority we can build responsive, collaborative, creative organisations with the best of both worlds: No power over people, and the full potential for everyone to realise their vision.

Learn more

Where does the purpose of an organisation come from?

Resolving the awkward paradox in Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations.


The inspiration for this article came from conversations and email exchanges with Charles Davies who is pioneering the use of creative authority in organisations. Charles builds upon the work of Peter Koenig who has been researching the subject for many years.

Tom Nixon is the founder of Maptio, an online tool to help you map the creative hierarchy in progressive organisations. You can get early, pre-release access to Maptio by registering here. Tom is also a coach and advisor to founders building modern organisations without traditional management structure and process.