For the most part Greenleaf invites us to consider his ideas; once in a while, however, he shifts and with clarity becomes direct. When I read the following I also sense his energy, if not frustration and anger (although I do admit these feelings could be my own projections). Greenleaf writes:

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 to the top of 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 colleagues who are equals, and normal communication patters become warped. Even though a man or woman may have had a long record as an acceptable colleague with equals, on assuming the top spot that person will often become ‘difficult’ (to put it mildly) to subordinates. The pyramidal structure weakens informal links, dries up channels of honest reaction and feedback, and creates limiting chief-subordinate relationships which, at the top, can seriously penalize the whole organization.

A self-protective image of omniscience often evolves from these warped and filtered communications. This in time defeats any leader by causing a distortion of judgment, for one’s judgment is often best sharpened through interaction with others who are free to challenge and criticize.

‘Abnormal and corrupting’ – clear and direct! If we humans are by nature social beings who need healthy relationships in order to thrive, then Greenleaf might be onto something. To isolate a person at the top, then, is ‘abnormal.’ It might also be ‘corrupting’ – let’s look at the definition of ‘corrupt’ as this might be helpful to us. ‘Corrupt’ = to destroy the integrity of, to lower morally, to alter for the worse, to mar, to infect.

Let us be clear: Greenleaf is stating that being ‘at the top, alone,’ IS corrupting; it is inherent in the position. The worst is that the person gives up his or her integrity and becomes a despotic tyrant. At best, according to Greenleaf, the person becomes ‘infected’ because the ‘equal relationships’ one needs to thrive are no longer available to him or her. In the past 50 years I have met three leaders who were not negatively affected by being ‘at the top.’ All three surrounded themselves with a ‘council’ that was rooted in trust (it took the members of the council – including the ‘leader’ – time, commitment and energy to develop the trust they needed). The three organizations ‘thrived.’ Sadly, when the leader retired the ‘council’ fell apart and the subsequent leaders were not able to (or was it willing to) develop such a council.

Gentle reader, I invite you to think about the lone leaders at the top that you have known, or heard of, and then take some time to reflect upon the ways the position itself was ‘abnormal’ and ‘corrupting.’

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