Rethinking Hierarchies

Rita J. King
April 1, 2020

What's the point of getting ahead? Ahead of...WHAT? Too often, people treat hierarchies like a game they play to get more status.

What's the point of getting ahead? Ahead of...WHAT?

Too often, people treat hierarchies like a game they play to get more status and have more people to boss around even if they don't know what the people who report to them should be focused on or why.

Today, I went into the Secret Garden at Science House to weed the roof. I was alone, as I almost always am in the garden. But really, I'm never totally alone. Science House is in Manhattan. The neighbors can always see. Sometimes I bump into strangers on the street and they tell me that they can see me on the roof, planting flowers that I usually get from nurseries in the spring because I love the color or texture or something else about them.

Not this year.

In January, when I heard about what was happening in Wuhan, I started collecting seeds in case we ended up in a similar situation in New York. And here we are. My first thought was, I have no idea how to plant seeds. I'm here to tell you that seeds might lie dormant in a paper sleeve for years on end, but they WANT to burst from the constraints of their outer shells. Give them light, water, the right soil, the optimal conditions, and they will come to life right before your eyes.

Just like people, in the right conditions.

It is our most serious work in this life to develop ourselves so we can create opportunities for other people to do the same. THAT IS THE ONLY POINT OF ANY PROFESSIONAL HIERARCHY. Anything else is an illusion of the ego. People don't report to you. You report to a higher calling, a shared purpose, and your job as a leader is to articulate constraints so that your team can think around them, to remove obstacles on the path, to create an atmosphere of safety so people can fail and keep trying, and to inspire people to develop themselves so they can someday help others do the same.

To achieve this, you need a very clear sense of your shared mission. Hazy understanding of a group's purpose is often disguised by the pageantry of hierarchy. This is one of the realities being laid bare during these strange days.

In Manhattan right now, the epicenter of the pandemic, we are sheltering in place, helping each other, wondering what comes next. Our frontline workers are heroically risking their lives to save others. A couple of days ago I posted a video of the Empire State Building lit in their honor. I was in Secret Garden (here's an article about it) when I captured this video.

The Secret Garden is my classroom. Here's what I learned just today when I was out there, manually weeding the entire thing by myself, my hands dirty after washing them seven thousand times in the last month.

Don't delegate the important things.

Weeding is an important thing. A garden is not just a beautiful landscape, though it is also that. It is a living ecosystem that requires thought, care, maintenance and pruning. Some things need to go so other things can thrive. A garden is a promise you make the future. You will tend the seeds you plant. You will not let weeds crowd them out. You will give them space to grow and proximity to grow together. You are responsible for whether that slender green shoot ever reaches its final form, whether its purpose is to delight with its beauty or feed people. If you go in without understanding the purpose of the garden, you might resent being the one with dirty hands forced to do the weeding. Shouldn't someone else do that for you? Aren't you better than that, with more important things to do?

Sorry, but you're not. You are the one who is meant to learn. No matter how far you've come, the road before you is long and filled with opportunities. Take as many as you can. Nothing is beneath you and nothing is too good for you. It's all there so you can develop to the point of true maturity. It's not easy, once we burst out of our shells with the force of pure energy, to become the best version of ourselves. But we might as well try.

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