Systems Thinking Tools: understanding hierarchy

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This post examines the structure of hierarchy using a systems thinking lens.  Like many of my friends who have a “problem with authority“, I always struggle with the concept of  hierarchy.  I think this is because the dominant form of hierarchy working in the human world is based on what peace and social justice activist Starhawk  calls power-over and is manifested as domination (at best) and oppression or abuse (at worst).


Power-over hierarchy is most apparent in the military, but is also found in corporations, universities, and many religious organizations (that is, just about every major human organization ever known).  Power-over hierarchy, built upon “command and control” relationships is deeply rooted in human history.

One of the early records of  hierarchy is found in Exodus 18.   When Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, came to him “in the wilderness, where he was camped near the mountain of God,”  he found Moses sitting all day making decisions over disputes among his people.  He asked Moses “why do you sit alone as judge?”  He advised Moses to “select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain —and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.”  There it is!  One controls the 10, ten controls the 50, etc., etc….

Human hierarchy runs deep.  This mode of decision making is the standard way humans have organized for thousands of years.  It is so much part of our culture that it appears to be the ONLY way to understand hierarchy.  While efficient in one sense, it is inherently unjust.

But there is another way to think about hierarchy….


While its true that humans have had thousands of years of experience organizing as power-over (command and control) hierarchies, ecological systems have several billion years of experience operating as power-with hierarchies.  That is, rather than power being manifested as command and control (power-over), it is seen as participation and inclusion (power-with).  Perhaps there is something we can learn from Mother Nature?

References to nature’s hierarchy are almost as old as the story of Exodus.  The first time we find nature’s hierarchy in literature is associated with Aristotle and is called the Great Chain of Being, or scala naturae (literally the “ladder or stair-way of nature”).  This ancient understanding of all relationships in the universe began to provide us with a sense of order and meaning.  More recently modern systems thinkers have added to this model of the universe.

Today, we understand a natural hierarchy (or holarchy in systems jargon) as a nested set of “systems within systems” of increasing complexity.  An organism (like you and me) contain “lower” or less complex subsystems like the human heart, and likewise are contained within the “larger” more complex subsystem of the human population. This is how living systems are organized and might depicted like this.

Now, what can we learn from this understanding of hierarchy?   Well…… one of the most important lessons has to do with the relationship between the levels of complexity.  A basic truth about natural hierarchies is “we look up for purpose and down for function.”


That’s right….  we look to more complex subsystems for purpose.  For example, an individual cell finds purpose in serving an organ (like the heart).  The purpose of the human heart, in turn, is to serve the human body (organism).  And, the organism looks to the less complex subsystems for function.   The organism looks to the heart for function.  The heart looks to individual cells for function.


Well, if this makes sense to you we might then ask the question…. so what?

YIKES….. its a big “so what!”   In fact it helps me to understand who I am and why I am here.  If I am indeed “a part of nature rather than a part from nature” then my relationship with all that is living is clear.  I too “look up for purpose” – that is, I am a “child of the universe” and my purpose is to be useful to something larger than myself.  If we apply the principle of “look up for purpose” we might see ourselves as part of “larger” or more complex “selves.”

For example, I am certainly part of a “family-self” and a “community-self”, so why not think of myself as part of an “ecological-self”, “universal-self” or even a “divine-self”?  This helps me to see that my purpose is to serve something larger than my personal self.

In a society when so many people seem to lack purpose (and therefore may substitute amusements or worse addictions for a meaningful life), the recognition that you and I are necessary to the function of more complex systems can be empowering.  The system we serve may be our family, community, nation, Mother Earth, or perhaps a sense of the divine.

This understanding of hierarchy based on living systems theory, might allow us to organize more human endeavors based on power-with relationships.  In this case, power comes from working with others at the same level of the hierarchy in service to a larger or more complex level.  Working in local communities for example, we can take actions together that serve others in the nation or protect and nurture “Mother Nature” (the eco-self).  Unlike the human hierarchy, the natural hierarchy is less likely to be unjust.


Power-over hierarchy it is NOT the only way of organizing human activities.  Some businesses have learned that as they add layers of organization between top management and customers they lose access to feedback and begin to make poor decisions.   Likewise political leaders lose touch with constituents when there are many layers of organizational hierarchy.  This also explains why “conquerors” throughout human history rarely retain power for very long.

Conservationist, Aldo Leopold, reminded readers in his classic essay The Land Ethic, that conquest is always self-defeating, as conquerors rarely know “what makes the community clock tick, and just what and who is valuable… in community life.”  Power-over conquest always fails, eventually.  The “command and control” hierarchy that represents the dominant mental model governing how humans choose to organize has certain deficiencies.

If you have to cross a desert with a “stiff-necked people” (Exodus 32:9), then perhaps a command and control hierarchy is needed.  Or if you are fighting a war, then perhaps power-over is the relationship of choice.  However if you are trying to create a sustainable society based on economic vitality, environmental quality AND social equity…..  the human hierarchy just isn’t adequate.  For example, (with apologies in advance to all of my fellow Roman Catholics who I may offend) I do not believe the Catholic Church will ever be fully successful sharing the message of peace, justice, forgiveness and love attributed to Jesus as long as it is organized as a command and control hierarchy.  As I stated at the beginning, If power-over is the dominant relationship in an organization, it will ALWAYS result in domination (at best) and oppression or abuse (at worst).

The only human examples I can think of that might at least partially model a natural hierarchy are the first century Christians and modern 12-step programs.  Do you know of any human organizations based on power-with?

Perhaps after thousands of years of trying to get the power-over human hierarchy to work, it is time to give the much older power-with natural hierarchy a try!


A printable version of this blog may be found here.


19 thoughts on “Systems Thinking Tools: understanding hierarchy

    Natan Theise said:
    August 10, 2012 at 11:48 am

    I don’t suppose you have read Emergence by Steven Johnson, your post and the book touch on a lot of similar points. Hope your summer has been going well, see you in a few weeks!!!


    Madeleine Charney said:
    August 20, 2012 at 9:19 am

    Excellent, John. I shared with Leah Zigmond who teaches Systems Thinking at Kibbutz Lotan (and where she first taught me about the concept in 2002).


    Dani Battle said:
    August 20, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    Very interesting! I am currently trying to start research and examine the upsurge of interest in urban farming, and TRYING to use a socio-technical systems theory approach to do so. (I say trying, as conventional food production and consumption is so classically power-over dominated and alternatives are so “power-with” based, that I become frustrated with what I feel is an obvious ‘wrong’ that could be corrected). Anyhow, the systems thinking approach to the dissection of these COMPLEX issues (as in the problems built by conventional ag), is I believe, one of the powerful tools we must learn to use. As you say John, the inherent justice for all of power-with systems should be at least a starting point for communities to grow together, and may take us all further down the path to true sustainable interaction with our surroundings.


    kablanch said:
    August 20, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    This reminds me of sacred geometry, especially the flower of life. Spheres create the seed of life which creates the flower of life, which is the basis of all creation. The flower of life is where everything comes from, and it is created by a power with hierarchy. I think this is a sign from the universe that we need to use a power with hierarchy.


    TheHuman Being said:
    August 20, 2012 at 11:51 pm

    This reminds me of the book “A Short History of Everything” Holonic Theory is very interesting. The best power-with organizational frameworks I know of are the General Assemblies of the occupy movement this past year and their predecessors in affinity group and horizontal organization. I bet there are a lot more in anthropology I know not the specifics of yet. Anyone care to share some more examples?


    John M. Gerber said:
    August 22, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    Posted for Gary Bernhard (;

    John, I think your post on hierarchy is excellent and quite compelling. I disagree with you on one point, however. You use the term “human hierarchy” to denote “power-over” hierarchies, the implication being that humans created power-over hierarchy. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s pretty clear that they didn’t. Dominance hierarchies were probably the organizational structures of pre-human primates. These hierarchies were all about reproduction: Dominant males had better access to estrus females and could control (more or less) the access to females of lower ranking males.

    At some point in our species’ evolutionary past hierarchy disappeared. The hierarchical troop was replaced by the egalitarian hunter-gatherer band in which there were no permanent positions of authority. Males and females formed long-term partnerships and cooperated in subsistence activities, men collaborated in the hunt. Reciprocity was the “economy,” since the nomadic life made it impossible to accumulate possessions.

    For 99% of our existence as a species human beings lived this way. But with the development of agriculture and sedentary living people could accumulate wealth, possessions, land, and power over others. The pre-human proclivity to contend for high status and control over others came roaring back into human social groups.

    I suspect that people have “problems with authority” today because underneath the thousands of years of human hierarchy are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years of living in egalitarian, cooperative bands in which people had status but no power over others.


      Dan Gordon said:
      August 23, 2012 at 7:24 pm

      As a historian of the French Revolution, I tend to think that top-down hierarchy has been under challenge for over 200 years. Consider a concept like popular sovereignty or Rousseau’s Social Contract. However, if I follow John correctly, he is not offering one more call for equality and democracy but presumes that some kind of hierarchy is inscribed in nature; it is just a different kind than we are accustomed to thinking about. For example, there is a hierarchy of values, and the self is not at the top. Are democratic ideologies based on equality and individualism as problematic as top-down hierarchy? Is it coincidental that our environmental problems have burgeoned in the era of democracy rather than feudalism?

      The inclusion of “the divine” in one of the diagrams (and I like the diagrams very much) is another indication that the philosophy here is not the conventional rights-based theory used to criticize hierarchy.


    John M. Gerber said:
    August 23, 2012 at 8:22 am

    Posted for and with permission of Marael Sorenson (

    Hi, John, Wow. Very nice… thank you for sharing! This what I’m working on this very moment w regards to someone who wishes for power-over due to their fears. They are asking me to sign off on their limiting thinking and limit my freedoms and the opportunities of those “under” them. I’m no longer up for that. I’d like to compromise for reasons of my own fears of loss, but I can see it’s like how one can’t be a little bit pregnant. Like you have pointed out, that kind of system is ripe for collapse because it is inherently flawed. Limitation must ultimately come to an end or it would not be true to its own nature. Forceful hierarchy and limited thinking comes from separation consciousness. We all have the right to believe and act as if we are separate, separate from each other, from everything, from our Power, but that doesn’t make it true. There’s a book I highly recommend to you called Power vs Force by Dr. David Hawkins. I am A Course In Miracles student. (It was titled “A” Course … not “The” Course for such very reasons.) ACIM teaches that everything either boils down to love or fear. Fear, though it can sure feel real, is not real, and is a cry for love. Unity consciousness is loving and is the Actuality. Inspiration is joyful, while motivation can be painful. I choose joy!


      Bob Kinford said:
      August 24, 2012 at 10:26 am

      Power with hierarchy exists in nature between plants and animals, but seldom (if ever) between animals of the same species. You also have to realize no other species of animal possess the human trait of ego.

      Until you can remove ego from the human species, while also removing alpha/beta tendencies, what you are suggesting will never be possible on a large scale.


    sroja said:
    August 24, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    I enjoy stimulating thinking such as this. Thank you.

    From an organization science perspective, hierarchy is employed to help manage complexity (internal and external), with increasing information and operational abstraction at higher levels of the hierarchy and increasing information and operational detail at lower levels. It is a power-neutral view of hierarchy. Your hierarchy of purpose over function parallels this. The approach is very effective but vulnerable to all the challenges of reductionism, including difficulty accommodating emergent processes (where “purpose” emerges from function).


    John M. Gerber said:
    August 24, 2012 at 2:01 pm


    There are now a number of examples of non-hierarchical, more ecosystem-like structured organizations. Probably the best is the internet.

    But I’ve just been turned on to John Lewis Partnerships out of the UK. Yes, there’s an organizational hierarchy but with a unique power structure (power-with). They were Retailer of the Year last year. They’re over 100 yrs old, have 81,000 employees, operate one of the largest supermarket chains in England, plus they have a 4,000 acre farm that supplies a number of products to their stores. They started as an apparel company and have expanded out from there. They have a constitution and their overall mission is the happiness of their employees. all the employees are partners and they collectively own the company.

    Go to their website and check it out. pretty amazing.

    Also see:

    Hope you are well.



    sarah berquist said:
    August 27, 2012 at 11:27 pm

    Thank you, John. Inspirational and stimulating as always. The themes of your recent writings on systems thinking have been appearing a lot in daily conversation and observations. Although I’m quite familiar with these talks on self, purpose, and holistic systems, each time I read, I learn something new.

    I’m grateful to have such well written writings to refer to articulate my point of view in these concepts of systems thinking and hierarchy.
    Connected very deeply to the text you quoted from Exodus, and this lesson of “relationship between the levels of complexity…” has been manifesting itself very much during this transition time after graduating college and before jumping into the “real world”

    Thank you so much for your insights, ever-inspiring!



    Adrien T said:
    August 29, 2012 at 11:22 am

    John, thanks for sharing this article – it was very refreshing. However, I have two major thoughts about it which I would love for you to help me clear.

    1) Your example of the cell serving as a function for the heart, while its purpose is to serve the heart, is a great analogy. What I am having trouble with is the fact that humans have the capacity for “choice” in our environment or situation, whereas the cell, from what we know, functions because it is built to function that way, there is no “bad choice” that the cell makes, and if there is, we call it a malfunction, and the system dies (or the heart fails). So, are we to say that humans making bad choices (or, not serving the greater purpose) is a considered a defect, similar to a deficient cell? Or is it that we simply cannot be compared to this analogy, given that we, unlike a cell (from what I know) have the capacity for choice. Is this capacity for “choice” the deficiency? I’ve always believed that one day, we’ll achieve a universal truth or understanding about our existence here and our purpose here, which would lead to any action coming naturally, without having to think about it, simply because it is understood that this serves the greater good, and it is a given that this is only beneficial for us and this greater good… maybe this relates.

    2) The power-with model is ideal of course, but it seems that our discussion of power-with encompasses different functions, or different species (cell, heart, body, or leaf, tree, prairie). Sure, all of these are functioning parts of a living system – but it seems that we’re not talking about the power hierarchy’s WITHIN the same species/part, I don’t know much about the hierarchy between the same kind of cells, but what about the power relationships between ants, or bee’s, or the same tree species, and most other species for that matter? Although I agree with the power-with model, using the above logic makes it hard for me to agree with it within the human species, given that as the same species, or the same part of the system, we serve the same function – and therefore (if my logic is correct) cannot really be compared to the power-with examples that you provide.

    Please help me clarify these thoughts, your insight is always most welcomed, I love reading your blogs – they are always inspiring and thought-provoking.


    John M. Gerber said:
    August 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Adrian… great question and I don’t know the “truth”. My opinion is that when humans act in concert with ecological principles, we act as the cell does toward the heart (serving a system greater than our selves). When we violate “Mother Nature’s” rules, it is a bad choice (or a sin).

    I’m not sure I understand question number 2. How about someone else? Anyone want to wade in on this discussion?



    Taylor Reid said:
    September 3, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    I like Dani’s term ‘socio-technical’ systems. It brings to mind the Actor Network Theory idea of nonhuman ‘agency’ as an essential part of networks. Bruno Latour, suggests that an actor-network “…has no a priori order relation… is not tied to the axiological myth of a top and of a bottom of society”. As such, it may provide a counterpoint to power-over hierarchy in social relations.
    Similarly, Convention Theory challenges the culture-nature dichotomy (Aldo Leopold did this as well). And in agri-food systems research, Sociologists have used convention theory and actor network theory to suggest the important role of local culture and local ecology (place and nature) in providing alternatives to power relations, which makes he understanding of these systems much more complex.
    Just some thoughts.


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