The lie of the leadership pyramid.

So many people use the word ‘up’ when they talk about leadership. It is so much part of our language that even people who understand what leadership really is, still use the word ‘up’. I still use it, so this post is as much to me as anyone else.


Metaphors like ‘career ladder’ and ‘rat race’ don’t help. They indicate being ahead of other people – higher up than others.


So what do people mean when they say ‘I moved up into leadership’? Is it helpful to refer to leaders with expressions like ‘the great and the good’?


Of course there are some real ‘ups’ in leadership. Pay for one. There is a real financial pyramid – a few people earning incredible amounts at the top of the pyramid with progressively more earning less and less until you reach the bottom of the pyramid where most people earn less than the national average. I’ll write about this more in the lie of averages.


Money, I suspect, is a big factor in why we use the word ‘up’ so much in leadership. It leads us to the pyramid image. In most organisations there are one or two leaders at the top, maybe a few middle managers and then the ‘workers’. But is that the ideal way to be? The pyramid model is limited because a pyramid can’t grow any bigger unless you de- construct it and start again. That can be a lot of hard work, especially if you’re starting with a particularly large pyramid. Even in small pyramids, like my primary school for example, the pyramid can be hard to change if the people who make it up have a fixed concept of how everyone fits together. Change can feel painful, because it feels as though the pyramid is being torn apart and rebuilt each time something new is brought in.


However a paradigm shift can ease the pain.


What if we turn the pyramid upside down? Then it’s kind of like a bucket. Admittedly it’s a rather square cornered impractical bucket, and not one that would be very useful in my garden, but one that will serve as a metaphor for this paradigm shift I’m talking about.


Now we’ve got an upside down pyramid we can make it bigger. We can add a new layer to the top of it and presto it can hold more stuff. We can build capacity with ease just because we can think about it differently. I blogged about practical ways of building capacity here.


The job of the leader is key now. She/he is at the bottom of the upside-down pyramid – at the bottom of the bucket if you like. This leader has to hold all the links together. Foster a supportive network, encourage and motivate, spot the potential for new links, develop new leaders or ‘bucket builders’.


If anyone has any better metaphors for describing this ‘bucket’, please do leg me know.


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