Connecting the Dots: Vertical vs. Horizontal


Published: 01-13-2023 2:57 PM

“You are intelligent,” he said. “That’s the newer of the two characteristics, and the one you might have put to work to save yourselves. You are potentially one of the most intelligent species we’ve found, though your focus is different from ours.”

“What’s the second characteristic?” Lillith asked.

“You are hierarchical,” Jdahya said. “That’s the older and more entrenched characteristic. We saw it in your closest animal relatives and in your most distant ones. It’s a terrestrial characteristic. When human intelligence served it instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride in it or did not notice at all … that was like ignoring cancer. I think your people did not realize what a dangerous thing they were doing.”

This conversation made Lillith uncomfortable. Jdahya sounded …“almost plausible” to her in Octavia Butler’s dystopian science fiction novel “Dawn.” “Yes,” Jedahya said, “intelligence does enable you to deny facts you dislike. But your denial doesn’t matter. A cancer growing in someone’s body will go on growing in spite of denial.” This book is one of Butler’s many novels that, as the New York Times wrote, creates “vivid new worlds to reveal truths about our own.”

Butler has helped me to see that the hierarchical structure of humankind is the root cause of the kind of pathetic political violence we are witnessing today in Congress. It is the root cause of the increasingly violent struggle between those at the top of the money tree and those trying to grab on to one of the branches below. Then there’s the really big one; the ascendant authoritarianism in America and in 52 other countries in the world.

Almost all organizational life is structured upon a hierarchical order. You can see it in the “management” of human organizations ranging from families to churches, from cities to states, from police departments to hospitals, from the NRA to NASA, and even in a wide range of legitimate non-profit organizations.

It is present in micro and macro environments. A vivid connection Butler made for me was the contorted comedy of chaos that was Kevin McCarthy’s descendancy into his totally powerless role as speaker of the House. Bipartisanship used to mean collaboration across the aisle, a horizontal exchange of ideas, beliefs and positions. In this case, collaboration swiftly slipped down the vertical firepole into collusion and power grabbing.

We all, I like to think, want strong and principled leadership in all of the organizational environments in which we live. In our homes, our communities and our country. It is a value not held by the likes of those who participated in the January 6 insurrection. Nor the election deniers. Their “intelligence” enables them to deny the “facts” they dislike.

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Many Recorder letter writers and My Turn writers have described a hometown version of the hierarchical management “style” of our city. Wid Perry, Wendy Goodman and others have lamented our mayor’s “unwillingness to respond to the needs of the community if they do not match her point of view.” These views include the May 6 jury verdict in Hampshire Superior Court that found that the Police Department discriminated against Officer Patrick Buchanan and the mayor’s decision to not reappoint Daniel Cantor Yalowitz to the Greenfield Human Rights Commission.

Hierarchy is a vertical map that lays out who reports to whom on every level of the organization. It is, in most instances, a barricade against equality. And it can erect hurdles in the way of achieving the organization’s purpose.

That said, I was privileged in my professional career to encounter a few outstanding examples where the organization’s vertical pecking order was turned on its side. Where the organization benefited from an open invitation to share ideas, passion, concerns across the board, not up some chain of command. A strongly shared commitment to achieve the organization’s mission was the glue that held everything together. This was especially evident in the performing arts. Lateral cooperation, connection and creativity is essential to the creation of any performance piece. Yes, there is a hierarchy with a theatre or music director or choreographer at the top of the organizational chart. But it is the highly interactive collaboration where creative ideas and insights are eagerly embraced from anyone regardless of job description that results in a stellar performance.

Using the “gift of intelligence” may enable us to deny facts we dislike. But our denial doesn’t matter. A cancer growing in any organization will go on growing in spite of denial.

Greenfield resident John Bos has finally accepted the reality that truth is a personal choice for millions of people. “Connecting the Dots” is published every other Saturday in the Recorder. Truthful comments and questions are welcome at