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Flattening the Hierarchy: A Flexible Structure

Pictured: Twice Hero of the Soviet Union Colonel-General V. I. Chuikov (center) with General of the Army Andrey Yeremenko, 1945.

Before globalization was the norm, organizations were constructed as centralized, stratified structures with upper leadership dictating their will to employees at the lower levels. Decision-making was strongly controlled, and only authority figures were allowed to decide policy and practice in a 'top-down' direction. Hierarchical organizations were slow-moving, depending heavily on a chain of command to communicate information.

However, in today’s global business environment, it is imperative for organizations to be nimble to anticipate trends and subtle changes in the world market. To meet the need for increasing local innovation and speeding up decision-making, organizations often flatten their hierarchy. In this environment, team leaders are empowered to make more decisions directly without having to move up the chain of command for approval. To inspire a cohesive, collaborative work environment, titles and senior positions may be changed or eliminated entirely.

During the development of the content in this blog entry, I spent time considering how to correctly classify the organizational structure of the 62nd Army in Stalingrad. After spending years studying leadership and managerial science and investing time researching Vasily Ivanovich’s leadership style and practice as well as the structure and actions of the 62nd Army during the Battle for Stalingrad and beyond, I surmise that the 62nd Army was actually a hybrid between the typical hierarchical organization and a flattened one, allowing for greater flexibility to address various situations as needed.

In the Red Army, there was certainly a hierarchy in place with the rank and file military structure. However, there were some unique characteristics of the Soviet military that helped to facilitate open communication. One quality involved the use of the term 'comrade.' After the Russian Revolution, 'tovarishch' became widely used to reflect equality of position in society. Deconstructing nobility, moving to a classless society, and enacting collective ownership over property were some of the hallmarks of communism. In general, 'comrade' was a universally appealing term to people in the USSR—even ranking generals were referred to as Comrade General or Comrade Commander. In the case of the 62nd Army, equalization meant that the military council leadership was approachable, setting the tone for the rest of the organization.

Also, common soldiers were entrusted with acting on their own initiative as needed. As Chuikov remarked about storm groups in his book titled The Battle for Stalingrad:

“The soldier in a storm group must have initiative and boldness, must rely on himself alone and believe in his own powers. No one else can carry out his job for him; his comrades have got enough of their own to do. The soldier needs to know exactly where he is going to launch the assault from, by what means he is going to enter the house, where he will go and what he will do next.

In an assault he is very often left to his own devices, acts alone, on his own responsibility. Clearly, to wait and look round for one’s comrades is letting them down, not helping them. Once you are inside the house it is too late to ask the commander to repeat his explanations of what you have to do.” (323)

True, General Chuikov established his authority as the Commander of the 62nd Army. But his was not a tyrannical posture. He shared the difficulties his soldiers faced—the practice of equality in the Red Army meant locating headquarters very close to the front lines of the battle. This procedure is considered to be dangerous and was atypical of army commanders. In fact, Chuikov’s foe, German General Paulus, kept his headquarters away from the Stalingrad front lines in the village of Golubinskiy during the summer and autumn of 1942, before the time of Operation Uranus’ great encirclement.

Equality amongst the soldiers also meant that individual innovation and initiatives were encouraged and even celebrated. Chuikov was familiar with ways to positively motivate his army because he knew that coercion would only go so far in a desperate situation. In a previous blog entry, I explored the sniper movement which Vasily Ivanovich endorsed and encouraged. Snipers like Vasily Zaitsev were celebrated in the army newspaper, which served to lift morale for the soldiers. Zaitsev was also instrumental in training other snipers to do the same.

Leading from the peril of the frontline while also recognizing the fluid yet critical role of frontline decision-makers in the ranks serves armies well in critical operations where morale can make or break. Chuikov reinforced the sincere rather than political meaning of 'comrade’ in his leadership style. Whether soldier or employee, people work better when they are working with and for each other, rather than for an unseen hierarchy.

Special thanks to Rustem Vakhitov for his historical contributions and review.


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