Leadership and management skills

Is it time we turned leadership on its head?

We discuss an alternative view of leadership with the hierarchy flipped on its head and employees feeling more empowered.


Jennie Marshall | 12 December 2016

How do you view leadership? If you’re like most people, you have an underlying belief that leaders should be out in front of the line, leading the way. The classic 1980s approach to management!

But what if I challenged you to change your thinking.

The problem I have with a hierarchical view of leadership, is that it’s not nearly as effective as we would like to believe.

The title of ‘leader’ or ‘manager’ these days seems to be assigned to roles willy nilly – think about how many people in your organisation have either of these words in their title, but they neither lead or manage.

The traditional approach:

In the traditional, hierarchical view, senior leaders are at the top of the organisation and ensure the organisation fulfils its mission effectively.

There are differing views about how leaders should behave – the best leadership style. For example, you might think leaders should be directive or participative or both depending on the situation. Although Steve Jobs, Hillary Clinton and Ronald Reagan have very different leadership styles, they all have one important thing in common – their role as a leader is to stand in front of their organisation and lead the way forward. They are at the top of the triangle.

Traditional leadership: Hierarchical view of leadership

The concept:

I’ve recently read David Marquet’s book ‘Turn the Ship Around’ – David Marquet was a former U.S. Navy Submarine Commander and his book tells the powerful story of how he learnt what leadership meant and the struggles he had putting it into place whilst commander of the USS Santa Fe.

In his book, Marquet proposes that leadership should be defined as: Embedding the capacity for greatness in the people and practices of an organization, and decoupling it from the personality of the leader.

This is where some people, Marquet included, see the inverted triangle as an alternative. In this view of leadership, the triangle is turned upside down, and leaders see themselves at the bottom, serving the people. Leaders ‘serve’ the people who report to them by providing what they need. The front line, the people who are in direct contact with customers are ‘empowered’ by the senior leaders to make many decisions that affect customers.

Leaders do not give away their power. Leadership is more like parents of teenagers, allowing freedom with oversight. It might be a loving style, but leaders still have responsibility for the people they manage.

This is still a triangle, with a top and bottom, and with a clear line of reporting – a hierarchical view of leadership where those in control bestow power on others.

Successfully shifting decisions to our employees at the base of the triangle requires that those employees develop new skills. Rather than simply following instructions, employees must be given time and training to master teamwork skills. Initially, some employees may be reluctant or cynical. Adequate resources must be devoted to developing a skill set that includes cooperation and decision making. Employees in an inverted triangle situation also need more information and communication. To make effective decisions, each employee must understand organisational goals and the role he or she has in achieving those goals.

You may be surprised to read that the idea behind this approach isn’t a new idea.

“The inverted triangle of leadership can be traced to the 4th century BCE where Lao Tzu said, “When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.'”

The real nature of leadership can be such a light touch that it might not be noticed.

This 18th century tale illuminates leadership as a vehicle, not a role:

A story is told that one day as the great Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk was riding in a carriage, he noticed a throng of people following.

He asked his coachman, “Why are all the people trailing behind?”

The coachman explained that the people wanted to follow after wisdom and holiness.

Elimelech decided that this was a good idea – the people were doing the right thing.

So he got out and joined the people following the empty carriage.”

The good news is to change your organisation’s perspective on leadership it doesn’t have to be an ‘all or nothing’ approach.

If we start to think as leadership as a ‘function’ rather than a ‘role’, we start to align our intention consistently with our actions and by supporting true leadership when it occurs amongst our teams.

It’s worth considering the following too, when working to this new approach:

  1. Don’t confuse leadership with the carriage, the vehicle. You are an instrument, not your role.
  2. Great leaders draw their understanding of what’s happening and what’s needed from the people who follow them.
  3. Be willing to follow. Leadership is a dance, not a parade.
  4. Challenge your perceptions of leadership. Notice and support emergent leadership when it occurs.
  5. Remember your greatest source of influence is your character, not your role or position.

All in all, David Marquet’s book is supporting my view too: traditional leadership creates more unthinking followership: less top down leadership creates more engaged leadership – at every level of the organisation.

He talks about creating a shift in the psychological ownership of problems and solutions using plain English.

So the traditional approach may sound like this:

  • Captain: “Submerge the ship”
  • Submariner: “Aye captain, submerge the ship”

If we now consider this from an inverted triangle perspective, the conversation Marquet describes would sound more like this:

  • Captain: “What do you think we should do?”
  • Submariner: “I think we should submerge the ship”
  • Captain: “Then tell me you intend to do that”
  • Submariner: “Captain, I intend to submerge the ship”
  • Captain: “Very well”

Over time, Marquet developed his speech patterns to one of ownership for the individual. Eventually, the conversations on the USS Santa Fe sounded like this:

  • Submariner: “Captain, I intend to submerge the ship. All crew are below decks, the hatches are shut, the ship is rigged for dive and we’ve checked the bottom depth.”
  • Captain: “Is it the right thing to do?”
  • Submariner: “Yes sir, our mission requires that we submerge now in order to X.”
  • Captain: “Very well”

I’ve recently worked with a fascinating chap called Brendan Hall – Brendan is the youngest ever skipper and winner of the Round the World Clipper Yacht Race.

He talks about something very similar around ‘raising the mast’. Do you tell your team what to do or do you embrace a culture of ‘you tell me first and I’ll then give my thoughts’?

This again is another great demonstration of the ‘inverted triangle’ style of leadership.

Through all of these anecdotes, one word springs to mind that, for me, personifies what inverted triangle leadership is all about ‘empowerment.’

For an inverted triangle approach to work, a leader needs to remove the cultural norms and processes that allow others to exert control – and allow everyone to step forward.

Having said all that, in real life, you’ll often find that real leadership that occurs has nothing to do with the triangle at all – whether your organisation works with the triangle up or down. Because the people who make the most significant impact and difference are hidden somewhere within the triangle.

So perhaps the biggest challenge we’re missing here isn’t about which way your triangle is; it’s about how you identify those hidden people and help them to shine.

If you are looking to update your leadership skills, QA offer a wide range of Leadership and Development training courses to help you develop professionally. Our new Leadership Academy offers an intensive learning experience at a high-quality residential venue, allowing you to fully immerse yourself and take full advantage of the learning experience.

Related blogs

Join the leadership alliance

As a leader how are you supporting someone's evolution?

The daunting new managers role...doesn't have to be

Curiosity killed the cat- but what about the leader?

Giving feedback takes more courage than you realise

Are you an authentic leader?

Fulfil your leadership potential

Leadership lessons from running


QA Training | Jennie-marshal

Jennie Marshall

Learning Programme Director (Enterprise and Outsource Services)

Jennie Marshall is an award winning learning professional (Winner of the 2016 Learning Performance Institute, Learning Professional of the Year Bronze Award), who joined QA in 2010 as a Learning Consultant in the Leadership, Management and Business Skills team. She has gone on to progress through various positions to her current role of Learning Programme Director where she now designs, develops and manages the delivery of end to end learning programmes. She is an experienced and dedicated learning professional, with expertise including management, leadership and talent, and training and facilitation developed within a variety of environments. Jennie has a proven track record of delivering blended, multi modal learning programmes using Learning Management System platforms and in a more traditional face to face setting, is at home with small and large audiences. She is a proven developer of people and is accredited in the use of a variety of tools including Strength Deployment Inventory®, Emergenetics®, Hogan®, Prism® and Worldsview™ as well as being an NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) Master Practitioner and Kirkpatrick Certified Professional (Bronze).
Talk to our learning experts

Talk to our team of learning experts

Every business has different learning needs. QA has over 30 years of experience in combining the highest quality training with the most comprehensive range of learning services, ensuring the very best fit for your organisation.

Get in touch with our learning experts to talk about how we can help.