The Mandate of Heaven: On Hierarchy

By: on November 4, 2019

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of Lights.”
James, 1:17

Having founded, led and sold a few companies, it sometimes happens that I’m asked how to lead a business. This surprises me for a number of reasons—but not as much as it surprises the person asking to discover that I’ve very little positive to say about the matter. By that I mean that almost all of the ideas about leadership and management I’ve learned over the years are not about how you should lead a company, but how you should not lead it: my advice is invariably not so much about what you should do, but about what you should avoid doing. In short, it is largely negative advice, learned by watching people (including myself) do things badly.

The Lost (Negative) Highway

And that is why I think it worth introducing the idea of ‘apophatic management’ into polite conversation. Let me explain. In philosophy since the time of Plato there has been a tradition of thinking that all that can really be known about God (‘the One’) is negative. All we can know of ultimate things is that we are ignorant, and all we can say with certainty about them is that we don’t know. This is the via negativa, ‘the negative path’ / negative theology, which is called ‘apophatic’ after the Greek apophatikos, from apophasis ‘denial, negation’. And this is how I feel about most management and leadership issues—that what we can be most sure of is that we should avoid certain things.

The first to introduce the idea of apophatic theology into Christianity was a certain Pseudo-Dionysus the Aeropagite (more prosaically—and perhaps amusingly—’Pseudo-Dennis’), a late 5th Century Neoplatonist. For this we can thank him, because it is splendid to think that we can finally admit our ignorance and base a strategy simply on avoiding pitfalls. This is all to Dennis’s credit.

However, on the debit side of Pseudo-Dennis’s account is the idea he went on to introduce in order to explain how God, being essentially unknowable and impalpable, nevertheless was made manifest in creation. Because it is Dennis who invented the model for the hierarchy (hierarchia) that underlies your departmental org chart.

John Maynard-Keynes said of ‘practical people’, “The ideas of economists and political philosophers—both when they are right and when they are wrong—are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” While Keynes assumes that it’s his tribe of economists who stand behind the decisions made by ‘practical people with sound common sense’, in the case of hierarchical thought it is theology and not economics to blame. And make no mistake, leaders of a practical bent love hierarchy. It is the air they breathe.

The mandate of heaven

But let’s first talk more of Pseudo-Dennis. To recap, his problem was that he had defined God as unknowable, yet had to make him somehow palpable despite that. His solution was to imagine successive layers of beings who take the ineffable light of God and filter it downward into increasingly graspable forms. His idea is that mortals could not even begin to comprehend the undimmed light of God directly. To make it amenable to limited minds, God’s effulgence must be refracted and watered down by successive layers of mediation. Thus we have a world with tiers of angels—at the top, the Seraphim, and then in descending order, the Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions and Virtues. Beneath them are the Archangels and ordinary Angels, the elements and the planets. In each succeeding tier the divine light becomes more dilute, and thus more adapted to limited human minds: according to Dennis, this structure exists “so that we might be led, each according to his capacity, from the most holy imagery to formless, unific, elevative principles.” And since the purpose of all this is to ensure proper religious order, it is called a ‘hierarchy’ (‘rule of the high priest’).

Now, this may seem an arcane matter of theological debate, but we should be reminded that in the feudal societies of the time matters of religion were matters of authority. Kings ruled by divine right, their judgement was divine. The Church had a central place in this too. The point is that this hierarchy was always about how power was exercised: God is a CEO, the Seraphim are essentially C-Suite executives, and Angels are God’s middle managers. Or to put it the other way about: management today still leans on the fading aura of the divine.

And this is how things still stand: the apophatic theology of hierarchy is the philosophical model that underlies all attempts to run things—from the firmament to the department—so as to translate the blinding wisdom above into appropriate activity below. This philosophical prejudice that the best behaviour comes about by transmitting instructions from above is spontaneously reproduced every day in our lives at work. We should arm ourselves against it, not because hierarchy is never appropriate, but because it is routinely recommended even when it is wildly inappropriate.

Summary for the defence

Before anyone accuses me of committing heresy by undermining the essential mechanisms of governance, and casting doubt on managerial hierarchy per se, let me slip in a few words by way of a summary of my argument that will save the inquisition some time. My argument is not against hierarchy as such (in the modern sense, of structured leadership), but against the spontaneous, uncritical assumption that, for any given problem, the most likely solution must involve either issuing better commands or enforcing existing commands more rigorously. Therefore my argument is that;

  1. Hierarchy is an ordinary, unexceptional and often unavoidable part of business and management.
  2. Nevetheless it has an extraordinary intellectual history which has led it to become part of the spontaneous, unconscious thinking of almost anyone who ever thought about management issues since the time of Charlemagne.
  3. Therefore actual hierarchies should be fiercely interrogated to determine whether or not they are actually making a valuable contribution to your organisation / team.

In conclusion, I humbly suggest that in many cases hierarchies are simply an exotic legacy of an outmoded theology and the feudal class system.

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