To be a lone chief atop a pyramid is abnormal and corrupting. None of us are perfect by ourselves , and all of us need the help and correcting influence of close colleagues. When someone is moved atop a pyramid, that person no longer has colleagues, only subordinates. Even the frankest and bravest of subordinates do not talk with their boss in the same way that they talk with their colleagues who are equals, and normal communication patterns become warped . ”Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership
I was thinking of Greenleaf's (1977) analysis of the chief ”subordinate relationship as I watched the media coverage of the recent corporate scandals. As I listened to the accounts of the lives and times of these disgraced corporate leaders, Greenleaf's words seemed perfectly applicable . The corruption of communication caused by rank-based relationships damages everyone involved ”even the leaders suffer. The inevitable consequences of this "image of omniscience" of rank-based leaders are a very real loneliness, indecisiveness, and recently, civil and criminal charges!
These are not evil or bad men. They seem, in fact, quite surprised that people even see them in those terms. It is obvious that they are bewildered that their judgments and decisions are even challenged. After all, they were only doing what the myth of leadership expects of leaders of large, important, hierarchical corporations. In some sense, they are as much victims of the myth as the thousands of other people hurt by their actions and decisions, even if they did protect themselves financially from the debacle. They, too, were deceived. What deceived them, and what they used as well to deceive others, was their understanding of leadership.
To this point, I have contrasted two types of thinking in organizations: rank-based thinking and peer-based thinking ”and how the former is supported by a set of assumptions that constitute what I call the myth of leadership. This myth creates organizations where the very few control all the decision-making power and leave the vast majority with little meaningful influence and authority. As a result, these organizations use very little of their creativity or innovative power. Rank-based organizations are much less productive than they could be, as the hearts and minds of most employees remain unengaged. This raises an interesting question. If our understanding of leadership is tied up with rank-based thinking, which creates unhealthy and less effective organizations, why have leaders at all? To answer this question, we'll need to examine the logic that makes "leaders" necessary.