"We help raise the consciousness of leaders to the power of collaboration for success and survival."


The power of collaboration -  we make leading easier by creating collaborative structures


Let’s begin by showing how shapes influence behaviour.

Imagine attending a traditional Christian church service (or Jewish or Muslim services).   Where would you sit?   Most people sit in rows with the Minister or Priest at the front.   Now contrast that structure (and shape) with that of a typical Quaker meeting where people often meet in a circle.  If you’ve ever been to a Quaker meeting you will immediately recognise the difference. 

In the traditional church, authority comes from God through the Priest whereas in the Quaker meeting there is no single authority figure.  In Quaker meetings people speak when they feel moved to do so.  There is no single spokesperson for God. 


The different shapes seem to align with the values that underpin these religions.  Traditional religions are hierarchical.   In Quaker groups there is minimal hierarchy.   In traditional religions questioning authority is discouraged.  In Quaker groups anything can be questioned.   Traditional religions are dominated by men but in Quaker groups equality between genders is the norm. 

When most people are asked to describe the shape of an organisation they will talk about or even draw the familiar pyramidal organisational chart. The apex is usually at the top and people will often talk with pride about how their particular structure has been flattened.  Occasionally some people will invert the pyramid in order to highlight the importance of the customer and/or the front line employees.  However, as we shall see, both shapes create problems.

These shapes and structures exist in our minds as much as on an organisation chart.   We carry the structure with us whenever we meet someone from the same organisation.  Are they above us?  Are they on the same level? Or below? 

It is worthwhile thinking about where the pyramidal shape for organisations came from.  There are two sources, the early military and the church.  In the military the front line soldiers and the whole chain of command had a duty to act only on instructions from their superiors.  Deviation from these instructions could lead to disaster.   Whilst some modern armies are seeking a different way of operating many armies still do not want you to think for yourself and show initiative.  Likewise the traditional churches.   The pyramid is the ideal shape for command and control leaders and a command and control culture.  Again these organisations have a strong male gender bias.   

Organisational shape influences behaviour to a much greater extent than is commonly understood.  This lack of awareness explains why many leaders place great emphasis on creating the right structure for their organisation but almost always overlook its shape.    Some leaders have gone to extraordinary lengths to get the structure right.   One organisation that we knew well underwent five major restructures in eight years.  Most probably the CEO involved would have liked another restructure but fortunately, for the organisation, accepted a golden handshake from the Board instead. 

We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be re-organised … I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by re-organising.  And a wonderful method it can be creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.
Petronius  210 BCE.

Chris Argyris wrote extensively on the problems of “pyramidal” leadership and organisational culture thirty years ago.   The term fell out of favour and was replaced by the more familiar terms that describe the same behaviours in leaders and cultures, eg: transactional, old paradigm, Model 1, command and control and alpha male. 


The term pyramidal it is ripe for a comeback.  Action methods, including organisational constellation, sculpture and sociometry allow people to have a non-verbal experience of how position and shape of the organisation’s structure influence behaviour.    This new perspective allows managers to experiment with different structures and shapes, for example ‘parabolic’, that better support collaborative behaviour.    There is great overlap between leaders who display Parabolic Leadership and those termed transformational, facilitative, new paradigm Model II, distributive and enabling.




Many organisational problems are reduced when the pyramidal shape is transformed into a three dimensional parabolic shape.  When this occurs anxieties about authority and status (or loss of) are minimised.  Authority is used with greater clarity to achieve the organisation’s purpose.  The roles of the leader and team members are better understood and there is an emphasis on mutual accountabilities with every team member. 

Many managers whose actual day-to-day working interactions bear little resemblance to the formal organisational chart may already be working ‘parabolicly’ without calling it as such.   They just call it ‘working in teams’.   Here’s an experiment.  Before discussing the idea of shapes as an influencer of behaviour, ask a member of a highly successful team, Which of the following two shapes best describes your team culture?  and see what they choose.   (Please note that people often feel pressured when only two alternatives are presented.  It is useful also to add a third “None of these” to give people greater freedom.)

In our experience members of highly successful teams usually choose the parabolic shape and members of groups who do not function as teams usually choose the pyramid.

We think there are advantages in understanding the principles of Parabolic Leadership because it provides structure and clarity particularly on the role of the leader.  For many people structure is very important.   Structure makes it more possible to foster significant change within an organisation.   Change does not have to begin at the top.  Nice if it does, but parabolic structures and shapes can and do flourish alongside more traditional structures.

 It is useful to begin by tipping the pyramid on its side.

Over time it is likely that other people, particularly those who have direct exposure to his or her Parabolic Leadership (Fig 1.7) will also adopt the paradigm.  L’s direct reports/team members (Fig 1.8) are likely to be the first to adopt the new behaviours but changes are also likely to be seen with L’s colleagues and his or her boss.



For more information about collaboration and Parabolic Leadership please refer to Contact Us on the home page.