Responding to the NextGen Poll: When is Non-Hierarchical Leadership an Obstacle to Organizational Success?

Alexis Frasz Headshot

In a new poll of arts workers, EmcArts finds that non-executive employees of arts organizations under the age of 50 are more motivated to work hard and want to stay in organizations where their ideas are respected and implemented, where they are empowered make decisions, and where they are connected to the artistic mission. Surprise! That may seem like a no-brainer to many of us (including EmcArts, I’m sure). And yet, this data is an important reminder because there are still many organizations out there where these seemingly basic principles—respecting the ideas of others, treating employees as if they matter no matter what age they are or position they are in, fully taking advantage of the available talent in your organization, distributing responsibility and power—are not being practiced. It is even more important because these principles are strongly linked to organizational success.

At Helicon we’ve been studying “bright spots,” cultural organizations that are deemed exceptionally successful by their peers, to find out the secret to their success. We have found that the organizations that are thriving are ones where the leaders empower others and distribute responsibility, cultivate an environment of trust, enable everyone to make a contribution, have transparent decision-making processes, and source good ideas from all levels and parts of the organization. Sound familiar? So, not only does transparent, distributed, empowering leadership make employees happier and more likely to stay, it actually leads to greater organizational success.

As always, though, the devil is in the details. In a bright spots workshop we led recently someone asked, “what do you mean by ‘non-hierarchical leadership’…isn’t hierarchy necessary sometimes?” I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I think at times when we are attempting to right a wrong, we tend to assume the solution is in doing the opposite. I’ve seen the error in this approach first-hand recently in working with an organization that was structured as a collective. Despite the workers’ deep belief in democratic decision-making, they all admitted that their non-hierarchical structure did not work. The decision-making process was belabored and inefficient, and there was no accountability or leadership. Talented people often left the organization in frustration over the challenge at getting good ideas implemented. What’s more, despite the absence of an official hierarchy, an informal power dynamic had taken over, and left many in the group struggling with the same issues revealed in the EmcArts survey—not feeling heard, empowered or respected.

So maybe rather than the hierarchy / no-hierarchy dichotomy we need to ask a question like, “what kind of structures and processes can facilitate our making the best decisions, discovering the best ideas, tapping relevant expertise and working most effectively (and happily) together to realize our mission?” After all, as Ben Cameron points out in his response to our report, “someone in the rehearsal hall has to make the decision on the blocking rather than reaching consensus,” and it is to any organization’s great advantage to respect and utilize knowledge where it exists – including among people of younger generations.


Alexis Frasz is a staff member at Helicon Collaborative, where she is a consultant in the culture sector, specializing in organizational development, applied research and strategy.