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The Battle Between Hierarchies And Networks: A Q&A With Luminate Lab’s Seth Mattison

The rigid business models and long-standing rules we’ve come to count upon for centuries are no longer reliable and are proving inefficient or ineffective against many of today’s most pressing challenges. At FEI’s 2018 Financial Leadership Summit, speaker Seth Mattison helped prepare leaders to better navigate the future of work.


FEI Daily spoke with FEI's 2018 Leadership Summit keynote speaker Seth Mattison, Co-Founder and Chief Movement Office, Luminate Labs, on the workplace trends he’s most excited about and the old-school leadership rules he wishes would go away.

FEI Daily: How good are companies that you work with at self-identifying their weaknesses?

Seth Mattison: Sometimes it takes... It's a little bit of revealing blind spots for them that they didn't even know they should be thinking about. Oftentimes, the more sophisticated or progressive companies show up with a little more self-awareness of where they think opportunities exist. But, I have to tell you, most of those opportunities are birthed out of a situation where a senior-level executive saw me speak. Probably at an association-type event where I revealed some insight, some new research, a perspective that made them take pause and say: ‘I actually hadn't thought about that before. And now that you're bringing that to my awareness, I see that manifesting as a blind spot with our executive team.” 

FEI Daily: Is there any new research or topic that you're particularly excited about right now?

Mattison: To be honest it's the theme that we sort of stumbled upon a few years ago and have been really leaning into and the way in which we approach it is fairly unique.  Essentially it’s this trend, this hidden force that's playing out inside every single organization, every single industry and at all levels of society today. And it's playing out between hierarchies and networks.

The battle between hierarchies and networks has actually been playing out for thousands of years. It was the printing press challenging the power of the Catholic Church in the 1400s. But it's manifesting in new forms today. People look at the internet and it's democratization of power and it's easy to see that as a very broad-based trend, but when I bring that inside to talk about how it manifests and shows up inside the organization, whether it's a small firm, an advisory firm of five to ten people or inside the largest firms in the world, we're marching towards this very networked world. We live in the age of the networks. Digitally connected. We have access to information, people, products, each other. 

For most of us, we have come of age in a world where the structures, and more importantly, the deeply embedded culture of the hierarchy has been our reality. And by coming of age in these structures, our educational institutions, our government institutions, our religious institutions, the non-profits that we volunteer for, it literally reshaped and rewired the way our brains function and think. It's re-routed the way our synapses fire.

That is not how the world we're creating or moving into operates today. It's not that hierarchy is bad or dead or outdated. It's just about creating some awareness of: ‘Where does it serve us? Where is it no longer serving us today in a world that is becoming more networked and connected? What's one unwritten rule of the world of the hierarchy that I need to just simply let go of in order to embrace this new network state?’

It's shifting leadership paradigms to prepare them for the future of work. Then we shift into: ‘So what? Where does it play out? What do I do about it? How do we position ourselves to go beyond theory and take it into practical application?’ And that is where we'll go with our time In Houston, just create the awareness and then see how it manifests and what can I do about it as a leader when I walk back into my office On Monday morning?

FEI Daily: What are some of the old-school leadership styles and rules that you wish would go away?

Mattison: One would be ‘never question authority.’  Almost every person in the room can think back to one time or another in their life or in their career where they saw someone challenge authority in a meeting, or called the boss out and then that person was just simply never heard from ever again. They just stop showing up at meetings. Or they subtly got nudged out. Maybe they didn’t get yelled at in the room, but there was that subtle message of ‘You can't question authority.’ 

I'll ask: ‘How many of you when you were growing up in elementary school, in high school gave your teachers feedback?’ It’s laughable. Of course we didn't. The teacher tells us what to do and what we need to learn and how we move through our day. You're being conditioned during your most formative years. 

What we want this leadership group to ask themselves is ‘Am I creating a culture where I'm encouraging people to call me out on my BS? To give me feedback, to tell me what they think? Or have I inadvertently squashed any opportunity for that information to come up?’

Another simple one would be ‘don't go above your bosses head.’ Respect the chain of command. And that manifests in really, really subtle ways. I talk with a lot of progressive leaders who will say: ‘Seth, we're a very open culture, we're a very transparent culture. We've got all this new networked technology that allows us to openly share communication.’ I don't disagree with that. But then I'll have leaders who will come up to me and say: ‘It's funny you would say that because I think that I don't believe that unwritten rule anymore, but I was just walking down the hallway and I saw one of my direct reports in my boss’ office and subconsciously a shiver ran down my spine... why is my direct report talking to my boss?’

That allows hierarchy to live in a way that doesn't serve us. So, never question authority, don't go above your bosses head, they can stifle innovation. They can squash open communication. They can reduce transparency.