Inverting the Leadership Hierarchical Pyramid

I sometimes wonder if it’s a past life as some sort of self-obsessed dictator that makes me so passionate about the responsibilities of leadership in this lifetime (needing to deal with past karma perhaps). Whatever the reason, leadership, a much-used word and often misunderstood practice is something that in different ways we all have within us.

In my ongoing reflection about leadership, I was struck again recently by the work of Robert Greenleaf on servant leadership in which he says

“[Servant leadership] manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first [leader] to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. (

Of course, many so-called traditional, hierarchical leaders would rightly argue that they too are focused on the well-being and development of others. And in the contemporary leadership space that’s true to a degree as we see so much more emphasis placed on equality, diversity and inclusion, emotional intelligence and people and cultural development. That said though, there is still a strong sense of the tussle between the need to satisfy shareholders’ financial demands driving a more traditional, ‘production’ mentality to organisational life where tasks and action dominate a more developmental mind-set.

Striking a better balance in defining the scope, responsibility, and practise of hierarchical leadership requires a shift in mind-set across all stakeholders.

And that’s also what’s interesting about this description of servant leadership, in that it defines a more fundamental and essential mind-set about being a decent person committed to holding a wider perspective in the way they engage with life. Wider in the sense of deploying a level of curiosity, openness and willingness to go deeper and further in understanding how to be of use to others. To enter a space where something more than transaction or self-interest informs the way of working, relating and leading.

Attending an executive meeting recently in a spiritual community I was observing the amount of love present in our relationships with and for each other. Not because we are all close friends – some of us barely know each other – but because we start with the principle of love as a cornerstone of our relationships. In this sense the word ‘love’ is describing a quality of engagement that comes from holding each other with a sense of generosity and understanding. This doesn’t mean that we didn’t bring passion, challenge and, at times, polar opposite views to our discussions. What it does mean, though, is that we prioritised respect, understanding and inclusion in our wholehearted attempts to find synthesis through relationship with each other.

The Greenleaf servant leader definition also brings a sense of quality into the equation of leadership. Quality that balances quantity and, in fact, gives meaning and value to quantity. It becomes about more than the transaction of what, where and how many, and brings a powerful added dimension of humanness.

Of course, we speak in traditional leadership development about the how, and yet so often these qualities, capabilities and skills are sacrificed when the pressure to do, to deliver is on. Reminding ourselves that humanness, a focus on others and a desire to be of value to others so that they can bring their value to bear are essential factors in leadership.

The qualities of servant leadership are appropriate whatever the times we inhabit. Surely, they are even more so now – let’s make this vital shift, invert the pyramid and see leadership from a new perspective.


Lorraine Flower
Lorraine Flower
As a Corporate change agent, consultant, coach and mentor Lorraine founded azzur and is completely transparent about the spiritual principles on which it operates. Alongside her 18 years as azzur’s founder, Lorraine brings 20 years' service industry experience to bear through her senior leadership roles at British Airways (BA) and Great North Eastern Railway (GNER). It is Lorraine's belief in individual and organisational power for good that gives azzur its raison d'etre. azzur and Lorraine specifically has worked with clients across the business spectrum from financial services, to retail and transport to healthcare an in both the public and private sectors. azzur is focused on developing contemporary, spirited leadership capability, and organisations built on inspiring purpose, empowering cultures and a powerful vision and values. She is championing new models of leadership and organisational development founded on the principles of conscious leadership and writes extensively on these topics.She is a member of a number of global spiritual groups and communities serving the greater good of Humanity and the planet. She works and studies extensively in developing and exploring conscious leadership believing that business leaders are key players in transforming the well-being of the planet and humanity as a whole.

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  1. Interesting reflections.
    We often associate the word leadership with power and this traditional combination has the advantage of being able (for better or for worse) to achieve results, even in difficult situations. However, there can be a downside: a role can in fact give authority to the person who holds it, but not necessarily authoritativeness.
    A solution can come from the leadership strategies adopted in the world of volunteering, where we are faced with the challenge of having to manage teams of people without having to exercise economic or contractual power over them. It is in these contexts that the concept of “service leadership” is fully realized: the leader is the one who makes himself available to the group and to the associative mission. Starting from this approach, it is possible to develop tools and skills that are also useful in the corporate world.
    The starting point is the management of emotions, often accompanied by the suspension of judgment: a mental attitude of neutrality, which helps to distance oneself from weakening dynamics (accompanied by prejudices), in order to observe situations and people in the most objective way possible. .
    A second effective action is that of listening and observation.
    This presupposes not the ability to pay attention to people, but also to group dynamics, to understand how to intervene and facilitate interactions and operations in the best possible way.
    We also have the power to change the meaning of sentences and even the way in which we represent reality: we can, for example, speak for solutions and not for problems or replace all the adverse conjunctions that fill our sentences to radically transform the approach into towards the people we work with.
    Exercising leadership is always a challenge. It tests us, makes us feel its weight of responsibility and puts us in contact with our beliefs and our knowledge. There is no valid vademecum for everything, but there are good rules that can make us live the experience in a positive way, contributing to our growth as people and professionals, also raising the quality of the working environment.

  2. well articulated article and thanks for sharing.
    to me leaders often become possessive or master of the assets. Where as they are required to service them . say as care taker . the second aspect of servant leadership is the element of sacrifice , devotion…… Loved the line ” Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

    • Thank you Vinod – the principles of service are very deep and soulful in my view – they are an expression of the soul not the ego…as you so rightly say, sacrifice, devotion, and I would add humility and joy…