There’s a serious tension — perhaps even a conflict — at the heart of even the most theoretically advanced schools of thought about more enlightened, humane, and effective ways to run businesses. Despite our efforts toward emergent leadership and away from command-and-control organizations, the notion that it all depends on a visionary leader is, to me, problematic.
My friend, Tom Nixon, wrote about this a few years ago, describing having dinner with Frederic Laloux and confessing that his Reinventing Organizations was ‘the best business book I ever read that I couldn’t quite bring myself to recommend to others. There was something going on for me, where the stories in the book didn’t seem to match the conclusions.’
And what was the snag? One of the goals of Laloux-style reinvention is to get to self-management, a decentralized system without formal hierarchy or ‘bosses’. But in Laloux’s characterization, the founder or CEO plays a special, centralized role:
Laloux describes a paradox in these organisations. As they become more decentralised, the CEO or ‘top’ leader exerts less and less formal authority in developing strategy, and managing its people and operations. However, simultaneously they have to play a vital, centralised role in ‘holding the space’ to ensure its progressive, decentralised practices do not regress back to a more traditional organisational model. Further, there appears to be clear evidence that the CEO in all the progressive organisations are highly visionary leaders and play a key role in setting the vision at the highest level.
On the one hand, Laloux describes these organisations as being like ecosystems such as rainforests, where ‘there is no single tree in charge of the whole forest.’ But clearly, the role of the founder or CEO is quite unlike any other, and the task of holding the space is vital for the health of the entire system. So in fact they aren’t truly decentralised. It’s an awkward paradox that doesn’t fit Laloux’s model of the next generation of organisations.
I’m with Tom regarding how Laloux, and many others, continue to carve out a special, almost royal role for the founder/CEO, and perhaps for other ‘senior’ folks, as well. And it certainly sounds almost mystical, like the divine right of kings, whose authority is based on charisma, and the sense that their morals and virtue (in the Machiavellian sense) ennoble them, and put them above others. Certainly, the adoration of figures like Jobs, Gates, and Bezos in the tech realm is something like that. And to a lesser extent, that shine has reflected on CEOs and founders of companies of every size. Their authority is not like that of competent managers, like a Tim Cook, whose authority is derived from the efficient functioning of the business (Weber’s bureaucrats). No, we see something shinier, a halo, around these towering figures.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that genius should be recognized, and that the iPhone, Windows, and Amazon have changed the world. But I think we need to lower the pedestal, in general, and move past the bronze age to more democratic models of organization.
Someday, perhaps, we will resolve this tension, which Tom refers to as a paradox. But not today, not in 2018.
Originally published at https://stoweboyd.com.