What Is Horizontal Leadership?

Horizontal leadership is a leadership style where the command and control structure has been abandoned and a flat organization structure has been adopted that is more team focused and involves high levels collaboration, communication, and the work centers on reciprocity and trust:

Horizontal Leadership is a style of leadership that depends on reciprocity and trust rather than the structured corporate hierarchy. In a horizontal leadership, or flat, organizational structure, leading occurs between all team members rather than only from the higher levels of a vertical structure. Through the use of reciprocity and trust, team members lead each other across teams and departments to collaborate:

  • Reciprocity: There is a free flow of information between individuals because there is no top-down or hierarchical structure. Relationships, communication, and ideas flow easily both ways.
  • Trust: There is mutual trust between team members. Individuals are willing to be vulnerable and develop authentic relationships because they know their ideas are valued. Horizontal leadership values teamwork, decision-making, and shared goals.

What Is the Difference Between Horizontal and Vertical Leadership?

While horizontal leadership takes a collective approach, vertical leadership follows a hierarchical approach—leaders hold a formal position of power and generally motivate a top-down approach.

Horizontal leadership aims to eliminate the corporate boundaries that vertical leadership encourages. For further clarification, here are four key differences between the two leadership styles:

  1. Decision-making: In vertical leadership, high-level managers/leaders hold the rights in making decisions. But in a horizontal leadership style, everyone—no matter their role—has the opportunity to influence and aid in making critical decisions.
  2. The number of managers: Teams who operate in a vertical leadership environment often have several levels of management where reporting might occur. In a horizontal setting, team members usually have a few managers and must report to each other and hold each other accountable. This provides teams and their members more flexibility and autonomy around work tasks.
  3. Employee input: While vertical leadership traditionally has limited the amount of input or influence employees have, a horizontal leadership approach seeks to embrace all levels of employee input and ideas. Leaders encourage employees to share ideas and feedback on how to improve workflow processes, and team members feel empowered to share these opinions.
  4. Communication styles: Communication is a two-way street under horizontal leadership. On the other hand, vertical leadership typically follows a one-way street where management communicates to employees.

Why Is Horizontal Leadership Important?

Horizontal leadership is important for several reasons:

  • Improved well-being: Research studies illustrate that workforce members in flatter organizations who are given autonomy report higher well-being and job satisfaction.
  • More empathy: Empathy is a key driver in horizontal leadership. As this leadership style values collective voice, it uses empathy to create a sense of community and an environment of understanding. Empathy drives better collaboration and greater morale among team members, and 80% of CEOs believe empathy is key to organizational success.
  • Enhanced communication: Horizontal leadership attempts to eliminate silos and boost communication and organizational dynamics through strong teaming and networking channels. Over 80% of team members believe communication is crucial to building trust with employers.

round table meeting

What Is Horizontal Organizational Structure?

A horizontal organizational structure is when a company follows a flat leadership structure. More specifically, there are fewer managers who allow team members to operate autonomously and build meaningful networks and relationships.

What Is a Horizontal Mindset?

A team member or leader who holds a horizontal mindset takes a collaborative and cooperative perspective when it comes to the workplace. Title and position are of little concern. Rather, the individual team members all help the business to achieve its goals and objectives. Everyone has an opportunity to lead, grow, and contribute.

How Do You Manage Horizontally?

Business leaders can manage horizontally by:

  • Providing autonomy: Give team members the freedom to approach their work however they see fit. Trust their strategy and accept the risks. Studies show autonomy can improve both individual and group productivity.
  • Making feedback cooperative: Encourage a healthy feedback loop. Giving feedback (often perceived as a top-down approach), is just as important as receiving feedback. Ensure it goes both ways by making time during 1:1 meetings for questions, concerns, and ideas. Inviting feedback can foster a comfortable and safe environment for team members to share their thoughts. The aim is to create a mutually beneficial relationship between two parties (leaders to team members, peers to peers, or team members to leaders).
  • Offering leadership opportunities: Provide team members the opportunity to lead projects and meetings. Horizontal leadership understands the value of having team members be invested in projects from beginning to end. This also allows individuals to step outside their comfort zone and drive critical decisions.
  • Encouraging team members to think innovatively: Encourage your team members to question and challenge the status quo. This can help them explore new ways of doing things and spark innovation. Moreover, thinking creatively can help your team and organization become more agile as the market consistently evolves.

For more guidance on practicing and employing horizontal leadership, look into CMOE’s Leadership Development Workshops.