Being Leaderless

It has always had a strong appeal – being leaderless. There is something innately engaging about the idea that people might organize themselves in ways that are non-hierarchical, in ways that are totally democratic.  Imagine! Everyone is the equal of everyone else. Imagine! No single man or woman has more of a say than does any other single man or woman.

Since time immemorial utopias have been built on the idea of this ideal. And so have countless social movements including, most recently, the Occupy movement. Nor is the principle of being leaderless confined to the political sphere. It has found a niche in the corporate sphere as well. In their widely read book The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom argue that whereas in “spider companies power and knowledge are concentrated at the top,” in starfish organizations “power is spread throughout.”

But, almost always, the dream of being leaderless is just that, a dream, a fantasy not a reality, at least not for any prolonged period of time. A recent case in point? Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, who has wanted nothing so much as to take his successful company and turn it into a successful democracy. In his quixotic quest, Hsieh embraced “Holacracy,” a system in which hierarchy and bureaucracy are supposed to be abolished or, at a minimum, drastically reduced. A system in which everyone has a voice – even an equal voice.

However according to a detailed piece in the New York Times (link below), two years into Holacracy, Zappos is anything but a workplace utopia. Among several reasons, those who are supposed most to benefit from it, don’t like it. While the majority of Zappos employees are willing to go along, most are unenthusiastic. And some number actually hate Holacracy. They complain it’s complicated and time-consuming, inefficient and unconducive to innovation. When Hsieh sent a 4,700 word e mail to everyone at the company accompanied by an ultimatum – embrace Holacracy or get out – fully 14 percent of the workforce up and left!

Of course Hsieh’s ultimatum conveys the conundrum: for all the talk about Holacracy being non- hierarchical, at Zappos it was imposed on those below by a CEO from on high. Hsieh did not exactly practice what he preached.

But there is another truth that has nothing to do with Zappos. Which is that history suggests that being leaderless is inimical to the human condition. The overwhelming evidence is that human animals, like other animals, prefer having someone at least a little bit in charge.



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