Elitist and technocratic accounts of democracy assume the necessity of leadership and hierarchy, while participatory approaches claim that organisations can be more ‘horizontal’ yet remain effective. To inform this debate, this paper presents a critical examination of the hierarchic organisational form. It explores classic economic and political accounts of how hierarchy emerges and is maintained, and seeks to reveal the mechanisms by which it achieves organisational effectiveness. The paper argues that significant ideological distortion lies at the heart of elitist accounts of democracy and sometimes in our popular conceptions as well. This distortion takes the form of a false equation between organisational effectiveness and hierarchy, one that allows hierarchy to appear necessary, when it is no such thing. With social science unable to confirm the popular belief that hierarchy is inevitable, the paper concludes that those who seek to build more participatory organisations are correct to question its unreflective use. The paper is thus intended as a contribution to the activities of democratic citizens in their vigilant management of this most prevalent, yet mysterious, of organisational forms.