Strong Leaders Choose Choice

Knee-jerk critics of organizational democracy typically misrepresent a self-governed workplace as some sort of directionless commune. Yet, as I point out in E Pluribus Kinko’s, strong leadership is a key prerequisite for the kind of democracy we encouraged. We wanted everyone to have a voice, but we also needed to get things done. There is nothing Utopian about workplace democracy. Sometimes you get your way, and often you don’t.

Several of our leaders behaved like benevolent dictators, and some were less than benevolent, but the partnership structure and company philosophy kept a lot of choices in the coworkers’ hands. This included the choice of free agency – the ability to move between partnerships to find a better fit for one’s sensibilities. Our leaders, whatever their personal idiosyncrasies, chose to work within a structure that limited their power. We didn’t vote on everything, but we sure debated everything. We needed strong leadership to ensure debate didn’t turn into analysis paralysis.

Addressing students of the Loyola Marymount Entrepreneurship Program, I pointed out that I do not present organizational democracy as a superior business model. As I explained to the students, “We know from reading the business pages that tyrants can be very successful, that assholes can be very successful. My goal is to dispel the myth that tyranny is the only path to corporate success. I want to encourage people who don’t want to be assholes to become leaders anyway.”

Many students view entrepreneurship the way Paul Orfalea described it in Two Billion Dollars in Nickels: “it’s not just about owning a business; it’s about owning your life.” They seek the freedom of being one’s own boss.  That inspires me, because I believe they will bring these values to their businesses, and respect their coworkers’ desire to be their own bosses too.

Here’s an excerpt from E Pluribus Kinko’s:

Paul and Dan also shared a success trait codified by Jim Collins in his excellent book, Good to Great (Harper Business, 2001). Both men were ambitious, but their ambition was for the company, not self-aggrandizement. And they both seemed to realize that the company was made of people. I believe this is true of all companies, but especially true of service businesses. Customers may have walked away with physical pieces of paper, but that was not what we sold, really. Paul knew from the beginning that our success depended on the fire in our coworkers’ eyes, and he promoted whatever freedoms kept that fire burning.

Dan saw this too, but he took a different tack: “Nothing’s more empowering than having the freedom to do what you need to do to get the job done. Coming out of the military, where everybody genuflects to the General, I was surprised that nobody listened to me. Nobody. But then I saw that we could design a framework for success in lieu of command. People could do it or not do it, but good systems, like our national Accounts Receivable program, were adopted on their merits.”

It takes a strong leader to build choice into their organizational processes, since the ranks of middle management will always be filled with petty tyrants seeking control and recognition. The democratic leader’s task is to keep those tyrants petty and empower everyone else. That’s how democracies evolve into meritocracies, where innovation can live side-by-side with efficiency.

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