I generally open my E Pluribus Success presentation by asking attendees to raise their hands if they think democracy is a bad idea. I like the irony of asking people to vote against democracy. Until recently, I thought it was like asking, “Who likes to strangle puppies? No one? You sure? Anybody?”
Usually, attendees agree that democracy is a pretty good thing, so I ask them why, if it’s good enough for nations, is it not good enough for companies, non-profits, and other organizations? Why do we usually run our companies like monarchies or dictatorships?
At one session, when I asked who thought democracy was a bad idea, someone raised her hand and energetically announced, “people have proven over and over again that we’re not worthy of democracy, and might fare better with a monarchy or benevolent dictator.”
You might think that the tough part of this situation was having my introduction thrown off. Nope. The tough part was my sympathy for her position. People have proven over and over again that we’re not worthy of democracy. But that doesn’t make democracy a bad idea. It just means we need to work harder at it.
Everyone knows Winston Churchill’s famous assertion that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried. Fewer know his other pithy comment on the subject: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” There is nothing Utopian about self-governance. It is stressful and messy and fraught with dangers. It is also an accelerator of innovation.
Organizations include owners or executive directors or boards with tremendous power. With the right perspective, that power can ensure the decentralization of power. This leadership paradox underpins most organizational democracies.
Healthy democracies typically require very strong leaders, forever pushing for greater public involvement rather than for more personal power. (Consider George Washington, who conspicuously declined to lead an American monarchy, and as President helped forge structures to limit the power of government and preserve individual liberty).
Companies have the advantage of choosing their citizens. With careful hiring (the only kind of hiring that should happen anywhere!), we can build democracies composed exclusively of worthy participants. In such corporate cultures, innovation cannot be stopped. And of course, such cultures attract ever more talented people.
Before you vote against democracy, remember that your organization has a better chance than most nations to make self-rule a success. I don’t claim in E Pluribus Kinko’s that democracy is superior to tyranny as a corporate culture. We know that tyranny is an effective business model; that is why it has been the dominant business model for so long. I just want entrepreneurs to know that democracy is a viable alternative.