This blog post was featured in the Huffington Post on August 22, 2016.
The common assumption is that the further up a hierarchy you go, the more power there will be and the more knowledge you will find. The belief is that the president of an organization is its most knowledgeable and powerful person. You can see this acutely in professional organizations, like hospitals, and in educational institutions. You might believe, for example, that the head of surgery is the best surgeon and the president of the hospital the one who wields the most power.
This idea is misguided.
Years ago a friend of mine, who was the second in command of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., told me that if you want to get a bill passed in congress you should pay attention to the assistant to the assistant of the key congressman. This is the person who can stymie or accelerate the process. This is the person who writes the bill and either pushes it through or stops it in its tracks. We usually focus on the voting congressman, but by the time the bill comes to be voted on, it is that assistant’s assistant who has to convince the congressman how to vote.
I was recently reminded of my friend’s advice. I have kidney failure, and did not want to go on dialysis. Instead I wanted a kidney transplant right away. For that I need a donor. I had sixteen people who volunteered, so I felt secure that one of them would be an acceptable match. All I needed was for the hospital where I would have the surgery to inspect the potential donors faster so I would not need to go on dialysis while awaiting the transplant.
How could I make that happen? I made the mistake so many make: I went to the top of the organizational hierarchy looking for the most powerful person in the system. I called a former client who had donated many millions of dollars to the hospital and asked him for help. I did not want to shortcut the process or violate the protocols, I just wanted to accelerate them—a small change. My client called the chancellor of the university to which the hospital belongs and asked him for help. The chancellor called me right away, and said the head of the kidney transplant department would call me and help me. What else could I have asked?
It did not work. It is not the chancellor of the university, or the head of the kidney transplant department who makes such decisions. Rather, it is a secretary who decides when and how donors will be tested, and she was not going to step out of the prescribed process. Not wanting to appear nepotistic, the department chair was not going to pressure her.
Chancellors and department chairs may have the authority to decide, but that is not where the real power is. It is the person who is supposed to implement the decision that has the power to make it happen, or not.
Where is the knowledge in a hierarchical, bureaucratic organization? It is not with the chair of a department or the dean of a university. My experience is that the people who climb to the top of a bureaucracy are not the most knowledgeable but the most politically astute. Bureaucracies are very political and people who are politically capable are the ones who win the top positions. The most knowledgeable people are often politically inept and thus relegated to the organizational sidelines.
Hierarchy does not tell you where the power and knowledge are located; you have to do some homework if you need to find where they are in an organization.
Ichak Kalderon Adizes