The New Leadership is Horizontal, Not Vertical

Horizontal LeadershipSeveral decades ago, when “leadership” became a Big Thing, it was heavily personality-based. It posited Leadership as something done by Leaders, who had learned the art of how to Lead. As a consultant friend of mine, Renee Wingo, put it, “It’s a subject whose proponents can’t figure out whether it’s a noun, a verb, or a gerund.”

Leaders were thought of as those who were followed by others. This dichotomy fed the idea that there are two kinds of people in this world – those who lead, and those who follow. Besides reinforcing the personality-based view of leadership, it raises the classic make or buy question – are Leaders just born, or can their secrets be unlocked and learned by others?

Finally, this distinction between leaders and followers fed a natural assumption that those roles were vertically related within an organization. Think military chain of command. Think bosses and subordinates.  To this day you’ll find many business writers harping on “the difference between leaders and managers,” as if the terms carried some ordained meaning.  In any case, it meant that leaders outranked followers.

Warren Bennis was (and still is) the [leading] guru of leadership. Much of what he has written is about Great Leaders, whether as exemplars, or as subjects in their own right. He held conversations with Leaders, who basked in his attention as much as he did in theirs. The majority of Bennis’s many book titles on the subject center around the noun “leader.”

Leadership development, in this personality-based view of the subject, was something that companies offered to elite groups – those with “high potential,” who had the inner capabilities to become leaders of others. The few, the proud, the Leaders – those were the ones granted the key to the next level.

Away from Personality-based Leadership

That was then; this is now. Things have changed, gradually but firmly. The concept of a hierarchical, vertical relationship between “leaders” and “followers” or “managers” has become less and less descriptive of the world of business. In its place we have networks, webs, relationships, alliances, collaborations, joint ventures, ecosystems, cultures, and communities.

This is not just a function of web-based aggregations, or faddish vocabulary. It is built into industrial structure, with much greater global sourcing, modular supply chains, and focus on core businesses. Language follows structure, not the other way ’round.

Enter Horizontal Leadership

What that means for leadership is simple but profound: the essential relationships are no longer the vertical relationships contained within corporate silos,  but the horizontal ones that link people across organizational boundaries. The New Leadership isn’t vertical, it’s horizontal.

This forces us to do a better job of defining leadership.  It never was about getting people to follow; it was about getting things done. It still is. Except now you get things done less by lining up the troops, and more by generating movement around a common goal. Horizontal leadership might be defined as “persuading others over whom you have absolutely no direct control to join you in a common cause.”

The “skills” of old and new leadership certainly overlap. You can’t lead horizontally or vertically if people think you’re dull, or an ass-kisser, or hopelessly insecure. But there are differences. The skills of horizontal leadership rhyme with influence, persuasion, and trust. Particularly trust.

Because the biggest difference between vertical and horizontal leadership is reciprocity. To be a vertical leader, you don’t have to be a good follower. But to be a good horizontal leader, you must know how to be trusted – and how to trust. It is not enough to be trustworthy; you must also be a risk-taker, and know how to be vulnerable, two prerequisites of the ability to trust.

Vertical leadership, like command and control, largely goes one way – from top down. But horizontal leadership is best practiced through trust, and trust is bi-lateral; you have to be good at trusting, and at being trusted. “Leader” is not a permanent attribute – it is a mindset/skill-set/role that is played at a given time by a given person, who the next day must play, equally well, the role of follower.

Which means, in today’s world, we each have to behave as leaders, or we simply don’t succeed. This is not New Age pablum-talk; it is a meaningful statement. In a networked, connected world, the skills of playing nicely together in the sandbox – horizontal leadership – cannot be squandered on an elite “high-potential” group; they have to be broadly taught. The concept of leadership development needs democratizing.

The future of leadership is horizontal, not vertical; and the future of horizontal leadership is learning the ways of trust. That means teaching trusting, and being trusted. And it means an approach to teaching leadership that is far more broadly-based than it has been.

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  • Chris Downing

    Ooer- this is all a bit subversive isn’t it? All those personality testing organisations are going to throw a wobbler with this thinking. So what you are saying is the classic Myers Briggs ENTJ character trait set doesn’t create the leader HR thought they were getting?

    • Charles H. Green


      I’d say those Myers Briggs profiles will continue to create precisely the character trait set that HR wanted and always got. It’s just that those types are less critical, less useful than they used to be.

      I suspect the profiling folks will come up with a more desirable combination of traits as this becomes more evident.

      • Hashim

        This is very insightful and functional. Leadership is mindset and very much contextual. I completely agree with you that leadership is all about influence, persuasion, and trust

        • Charles Dhewa

          Fantastic article and discussion! Sometimes you can influence, persuade and build trust without knowing it. Recently, somebody walked to me and said, “Charles, do you know you are my role model?”. I was actually surprised.

  • Martin Kevill

    Interesting. But first you MUST eliminate the “blame culture” prevalent in so many organisations. Only when everyone feels that they can be open and communicative without fear of criticism will horizontal leadership work.

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  • Alex Naseree

    Mr. Green,

    I completely agree that leadership among peers, rather than vertical leadership, is one of the most important roles. As a student leader, I know it is usually not easy and takes more effort (at least initially, to gain trust, respect, etc), but can create more valuable experiences and interpersonal relationships in the end. The point that “leaders are not born” is so true- we can all choose to lead or follow in different situations. However, to allow us to get to that decision point, I think that there should be more emphasis on leadership development in education to help individuals better know themselves and be able to better serve others and the organizations for which they work.

    Alex Naseree
    Tulane University Student

    • Charles H. Green


      I quite agree with you. For the most part, leadership skills – like sales skills – aren’t much taught in schools because they don’t appear to be “hard” sciences, i.e. amenable to metrics, processes, and the like.

      Which is unfortunate, because we’ve all bought into this silly mantra that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” I say silly because it’s very hard to measure “leadership,” but that doesn’t mean for a minute that it’s not important, nor that it can’t be taught. It is, and it can be.

      Thanks for commenting. Shout out to Nawlins

  • John Reynolds


    quite literally this has changed my life.
    I was introduced to your trust equation by a very good friend, colleague and trusted leader. He took the time one afternoon in London to explain what trust was and it was the first time I’d heard it articulated so precisely, so comprehensively and so simply.

    It was truly a revelation and I now know what good looks and feels like – and that means relationships and communication on ALL levels, whether you are a ‘leader’ or not.

  • Shaun Parkes


    How refreshing to read something intelligent and common-sensical on the “black magic” that is leadership. As a manager in business, but also having been an RAF Reserve Officer with the Air Cadets for c 25 years, I have experience in both military and civilian leadership scenarios and have seen some leadership howlers in both areas, and have had to modify my approach at various times to address specific issues.

    However I have noticed that too many people regard leadership as a mantra, or almost as a solid physical entity, when in reality it should be more of a jelly, constantly changing shape (if practised skilfully) to best meet the needs of evolving situations and circumstances.

    Also I agree entirely about the concept of horizontal leadership, again many regard leadership as being purely hierarchical – however we generally spend more time dealing with peers, team members, colleagues etc than with our bosses and therefore our opportunity to practice good leadership is more in the horizontal plane. In these days of business partners/partnerships, there are more horizontal relationships between peers than hierarchical between bosses and subordinates, and our leadership approach must evolve to reflect this.
    Shaun Parkes.

    • Charles H. Green


      Thanks so much for this comment. You add substance to my points by virtue of your experience, particularly in pointing out that “these days…there are more horizontal relationships between peers than hierarchical between bosses and subordinates, and our leadership approach must evolve to reflect this.”

      Completely agree. Thanks for making the point directly based on your resume.

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