Moving from Hierarchy to a Circle of Equals

When people ask me, “What do you do?” or “What kind of work do you do?”, they generally are asking me what kind of job I do to make a living. And particularly because I am a white male person of some economic and educational privilege (with a head full of gray hair), they often presume that that job is a fairly high-powered one, and a major part of how I define myself. My job is fairly high-powered, I am a “business process consultant” for Kaiser Permanente, specifically the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, which is a not for profit health insurance company. But nowadays, that is not how I answer the question of what I do or even what my “work” is.

Though I am a great advocate for what Kaiser is doing as a “health maintenance organization”, modeling what I believe to be the best approach to health care in the United States, my work for them is at most my “day job”, and how I pay our family’s bills. Increasingly, I answer the question by talking about my “life’s work” instead, which is financed by my day job at Kaiser.

I am defining my “life’s work” these days as promoting and facilitating our society’s transition from “hierarchy to a circle of equals”. You will find that phrase in many of the pieces I write and I use those words hoping that people who read my stuff understand what I’m talking about. But as my partner Sally reminded my this morning, some people may not get what I’m talking about.


Wiktionary defines a hierarchy as…

1. A body of authoritative officials organized in nested ranks.

2. Any group of objects ranked so that every one but the topmost is subordinate to a specified one above it.

In the simplest terms, we exist within a “hierarchy” when other people have control over us and tell us what to do based on their higher position in the explicit or implied “org chart”. The most obvious example is the military, where you take orders from and are responsible to a person of a higher “rank”. The captain gives orders to their lieutenants, who then give orders to their sergeants, who then give orders to their corporals and privates. You are not supposed to question orders, you are supposed to obey them. And “outranking” someone does not just mean you tell them what to do, you are also responsible for how well they do what they do, and are responsible for all the people “under your command”.

Even if you are not in the military you may still exist within a number of other hierarchies. At work you may take orders from and answer to a manager, supervisor, or some other sort of “boss”. Your “boss” has a “boss” above them and on up the org chart to the owner, director, CEO or whoever else is “on top” of the company or organization you work for.

In your religious congregation you may take ethical or spiritual direction from (and feel you are answerable to) a minister, priest, imam, rabbi, or other clerical official, who may themselves take direction from a higher ranked clerical official, with some god or other deified entity at the top of that pyramid of authority. (I always think hierarchy when I hear a fundamentalist Christian talk about being “god-fearing”.)

We live in a democratic country where we no longer have emperors, monarchs or other nobility. And though we elect our President, governors, mayors and legislators, we still tend to think of them as authority figures above us who pass and implement laws, set up agencies, and otherwise control and direct our behavior and are responsible for our safety and at least elements of our wellbeing. Again, the levels of control are for the most part clearly defined, local officials taking direction from state officials, and state officials taking direction from federal.

If you are a kid and you go to school you probably take instruction from, and are answerable to, one or more adult teachers who are in turn responsible for all or part of your formal education in school. The teachers are generally answerable to a principal who in turn is answerable to levels of the school bureaucracy above them and on up to a state board and/or superintendent of education.

And as a kid, when you get home from school, you may take direction from and be answerable to your parents or other guardians who are in turn generally considered responsible for your care as well as your behavior. Depending on the family and religious structures within your culture, your parents may feel they must answer to their parents, some other patriarch or matriarch in your family, or to some sort of deity.

All of these examples meet one or both of the Wiktionary definitions of hierarchy…

1. A body of authoritative officials organized in nested ranks.

2. Any group of objects ranked so that every one but the topmost is subordinate to a specified one above it.

In general, in a hierarchy, we think of people higher up in the structure having authority or even control over the people below them, with coercive power as necessary to enforce that authority. Though in general we hope that these authority figures exercise their authority responsibly, considering our needs and even our feedback; that is often not the case.

The Other Paradigm… a Circle of Equals

“Circle of Equals” is the term I like to use to define the opposite of hierarchy, where people interact with comparable rather than ranked status. Members of such circles we often describe as “peers”, “partners”, “colleagues”, “members”, or “citizens”, and we use adjectives like “egalitarian” or “democratic” to describe their relationship with each other. Borrowing from the business world we talk about “flattening the org chart” (think Tom Friedman’s book The World is Flat).

In Wikipedia, egalitarianism is defined as…

A trend of thought that favors equality of some sort among moral agents… Emphasis is placed upon the fact that equality contains the idea of equity of quality. Moral agents should get the same, or be treated the same, or be regarded as possessing the same quality in some respect despite race, religion, ethnicity, sex, sexual preference, gender expression, species, political affiliation, economic status, social status, and/or cultural heritage. Egalitarian doctrines tend to maintain that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or social status.

In a circle of equals there can still be leaders or managers, but they generally serve in that capacity at the behest of the group, or at least answer to some degree to the group. If the group leaders still direct the group, they do so based on the will of the group and are generally answerable to the group (instead of the other way around). That said, leadership within a circle of equals is more often about facilitating the effective action of group members toward the group’s goals.

In the real world of course a particular institution or more informal grouping of people can fall anywhere on a spectrum between absolute hierarchy and complete egalitarianism with elements of both. Going back to my earlier examples of hierarchy, most of them (except perhaps the military) can be reworked more as circles of equals.

For example, in a “matrixed” work environment “teams” may be defined that agree amongst the team members who their team “lead” should be. More realistically perhaps, a manager or supervisor is focused on providing the appropriate resources, support, and otherwise facilitating the activities of the team of people that they manage. Though directives still may come from the “top” leadership, the team decides more collaboratively how they will carry out their part of the organization’s objectives. Decisions generally are made more collaboratively, including input from all involved. This could include managers being reviewed by the people they manage.

In terms of a religious congregation, the clerical person facilitates the worship services, which may be led by that person or other congregation members. In the Quaker religion, some worship services are not led at all. Congregation members gather, are initially silent, then rise and speak (or not) as they are so moved.

In political institutions this can be seen with citizens being politically active as community organizers and lobbying their elected representatives, rather than just being passive voters and spectators of the political and legislative process. Government as a circle of equals was the vision of at least some of our founding fathers, particularly people like Thomas Jefferson.

Finally, when it comes to adults, youth and children, it’s adults playing more of a facilitative and mentoring role rather than mostly directing what youth and children are doing. In schools and other venues focused on learning, this it’s kids directing their own education, seeking adults (when needed) for advice, instruction, and access to learning resources.

In families it’s kids speaking their minds, being listened to by parents and guardians who try to facilitate their kids developing and blossoming as unique, autonomous human beings with their own agency and self-direction. It’s parenting that is neither authoritarian, permissive, “helicopter” or neglectful, but instead provides an enriched environment for development.

My Life’s Work

So at age 56, I now see clearly that my life’s work is witnessing, facilitating and advocating for this transition from hierarchical to more egalitarian circles of equals within our society, and particularly in the area of kids and adults, which in many ways seems like the last vestige of the hierarchical “us and them” thinking that I am trying to move us away from.

So as a parent, I have tried to engage my kids as fellow human beings who are not quite as far on their personal development as I am, thus my stewardship and mentoring, but in every other way my equal.

In my paid work now at Kaiser, I try to approach it not as a worker-bee waiting for marching orders, but as a free agent bringing my skills and experience to bear to do what I can to help my colleagues be successful. At every opportunity I try to “speak truth to power” and candidly and visibly offer my thoughts to management to model how others can do so as well. When I am called upon to lead a meeting or other work group, I try to address everyone, whatever their place in the “food chain”, as equals and make sure their contribution is requested and heard.

As a blogger for close to three years now I continue to write pieces about my own experiences, about our history, and looking at our contemporary society, championing this great transition from one paradigm to another.

It is clear to me that “what it’s all about”, is the evolution of human consciousness, and that that evolution will be best facilitated by moving away from hierarchy and the wisdom of the few, towards a circle of equals, with no “us and them”, unlocking, sharing and leveraging the wisdom of us all.

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