The world is dramatically changing. In many aspects of life and business, what used to be a universal truth is not valid anymore. Unprecedented circumstances turn the world, and our beliefs around it, upside-down. We are currently experiencing a new disruptive reality, where everything we used to consider as a certainty is under question. The hierarchical business pyramid is one of these – obsolete – certainties.

The new disruptive reality speeds up transformation processes, reveals incompetent, aged approaches, and is, eventually, expected to replace our (ex-)universal standards with new, more suitable, more mature, more forward-looking ones. Both in life and business. For a period of time, we cannot currently predict with accuracy.

Hierarchical pyramids have, more or less, fulfilled their target. They are not working anymore; they cannot lead organizations in the new VUCA* world ahead.

Today’s business pyramid must turn upside-down with the leaders found at the bottom of it.

This is a new business model that requires new attitudes and new skills.

The leader profile then and now

The image of the leader “in front”, “above” or “at the top”, the image of the solid “captain” who gives orders and decides without hesitation (and without consulting those around him) has been applied for years and years.

However, the practice – and the theory – in recent years uncovered a totally different profile.

The profile of the “servant-leader” emerges as a reliable, sustainable, and – most importantly – effective management model.

The reversal of the hierarchical pyramid (with the leader at the bottom) ensures the broadest and most effective participation of the people-members of the team and therefore guarantees optimum business results.

Servant-leader: what it is and what it is not

The servant-leader is characterized by authenticity, integrity, self-confidence, kindness (yes, human kindness!), humility, resilience, open mind. She cares about her people and trusts them. She is interested in their progress. Their own success is her greatest satisfaction. She admits her weaknesses and tries to correct her shortcomings. She is ambitious but not vain. She is demanding but not cruel. She is kind but not naive. She is vulnerable and at the same time decisive, enthusiastic, passionate, principles-driven, and devoted to the organization’s ultimate purpose. In short, the servant-leader is a professional of outstanding ability with enhanced emotional intelligence.

Employees: emasculated or empowered?

In the past, many of us have met colleagues who were accustomed to tolerating and grumbling, employees with low ambitions, low expectations, and low claims. These have been castrated employees who easily turned into “prey” of immoderate leaders.

On the other hand, employees who are “served” by their leader translate authority into responsibility and are not afraid to take initiatives. They are self-motivated, accountable, and therefore creative.

Empowered employees are the most important “asset” for any healthy and ambitious organization because their engagement guarantees organization’s long-term prosperity.

What is happening today?

Most organizations – still – operate with the traditional hierarchical pyramid. They follow the top-down approach, which means the decisions are made “up” and implemented “down”. This model is widespread and is supported by a large number of entrepreneurs and executives, with emphasis particularly on family businesses. There, the role of the “one and only” leader is part of the legacy, and it is very difficult to bend, no matter how out of place it may be, taking into account the rapidly changing business reality.

In multinational organizations and in companies with more corporate structures, which are – usually – also more advanced in management approaches, the model of the inverted pyramid is more effortlessly adopted and produces results much faster. However, even in such organizations, there are various anchors and “comfort zone” obstacles to get over.

As with all significant changes, the “upside-down pyramid” is not easy to implement. In the beginning, it creates a lot of tension, reluctance, and upheaval. But when applied, it works amazingly well!

Today, the open-minded entrepreneurs, executives, and organizations realize the positive effects of the “upside-down pyramid” model and rush to implement it. Of course, with many mistakes in the beginning, but that is acceptable.

In the much-discussed category of start-ups, the inverted pyramid is considered a normal approach for the new scheme to stand up quickly.

Some assumptions for the future

Taking into consideration that a. things are changing faster than in the past, b. desired agility requires profound and fundamental changes, c. competitiveness lies in new, more complex, but also more agile structures, we should expect to see businesses and organizations changing their leadership point of view faster than we would consider some years ago.

Every manager and every entrepreneur will hold a new human pyramid on their shoulders, a pyramid comprised of people who know, pursue, are able to contribute, and want to play a key role. This is a powerful new trend, impossible to be suspended.

Respect of diversity and enhancement of inclusion are going to be the key success factors for every organization in the future. The inverted pyramid business model is the one to facilitate exactly these two crucial principles.

10 tips from a contemporary servant-leader

Contemporary leaders need to exercise honesty and genuine interest, be able and willing to listen, understand and serve the members of their teams by placing themselves in the most efficient position for the well-being of their organizations: at the bottom of the inverted pyramid.

However disruptive it may seem, servant-leaders are the champions of the future.

If a servant-leader were asked to disclose her most success-critical management practices to another leader, these are the points she would mention:

Give employees room and authority! Ask for their opinion on everything that concerns them. Give them the opportunity to improvise, to make mistakes, to try again.

Give examples of discipline and consistency! Without those two, any given authority is likely to shift into arrogance. Accountability is the name of the game.

Let them find their own sense of balance! Notice the evolution of the team’s dynamics. Learn from that. And consider that your people are making the most valuable journey of self-awareness.

Reward the effort! Recognize people’s hard work, even if they fail the first time, even if they make mistakes. You are not perfect either. What is important is to get up every time you fall.

Give clear targets! This is your job. People need to know “where” they are going. Let them find “how” themselves. Make sure, though, that you have agreed on the basic principles on which they will base their work.

Discuss any idea that falls on the table! Do not rush to reject what you have not already thought of. Respect the different ways of thinking. And admit that you are not omniscient.

Get over the big idea you have for yourself! Most probably you are rather good to have reached here, but there are better minds than yours. Your “magic” is to get them to work with you to achieve the common goal.

Get rid of the fear! This is the main inhibitory factor for people to work creatively and perform to the best of their ability. Create conditions so that people are not afraid to take initiatives. In practice not in words. Unlock their potential. You will be surprised by the result.

Defend and promote cooperation! Many minds together are better than one. No one won the battle alone, let alone the war. Do not reproduce “little bossy leaders” in your teams. Put them in the corner or send them home. They ruin your effort.

Your leadership is not in danger when you share authority! It is just as strong because it is supported by more people. You need allies, not followers. You need passionate comrades, not helpless admirers. Your impact grows exponentially when you share authority with honesty, prudence, and confidence.

We are moving towards self-managed organizations and teams in which talent, values, leadership are diffused in the pyramid and are not limited to its (old) top. Utilizing everyone’s potential, the result is dazzlingly good for all!

There is no doubt: the effective pyramid is the inverted pyramid!

And the effective leader is the one who serves her people reinforcing the inverted pyramid’s greatness!

*VUCA: a (mainly business) term used to indicate today’s Vulnerable, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous circumstances