The end of Leadership: Are we headed to a final stage, in which the governed are no longer willing to give their consent to any leaders—political or corporate? The solution to bad leadership isn’t no leadership. It’s betterleadership. -By Philippe Mora
[Thank You HBR | By Andrea Ovans 05.12]
Our leaders are failing us, or at least that’s the prevailing narrative nowadays. In the United States, confidence in Congress is at a record low, President Obama has been struggling with tepid approval ratings for much of his term, and only 45% of people say they trust executives of major corporations even moderately. That’s stellar compared with sentiment about leaders in Europe, and let’s not even talk about public opinion in North Africa and the Middle East.
The disaffection is so great, and so pervasive, that allegiances around the world seem to be shifting not to new leaders but to the exact opposite—to leaderless movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and the Tea Party, which aim to show that crowds can and should wield as much power and influence as those individuals officially in charge.
After reading Harvard government professor Barbara Kellerman’s The End of Leadership, you might consider this to be the natural progression of things. Tracing the history of leadership from the all-powerful Greek and Roman gods, to religious leaders like Abraham and Buddha, to philosopher kings and tyrants, to constitutional monarchs, to elected representatives ruling with the consent of more and more of the governed, Kellerman effortlessly demonstrates that the pattern has been relentlessly consistent: a constant diffusion of power from the few at the top to the many more below. Are we headed to a final stage, in which the governed are no longer willing to give their consent to any leaders—political or corporate, despotic or democratic?
That’s where Carne Ross is certainly going in The Leaderless Revolution. A former British diplomat and the architect of the UK’s sanctions policy against Iraq (which he now believes led directly to the deaths of a half-million Iraqi children), Ross makes an impassioned case not just against leadership but against any form of representation, even representative democracy, arguing that it hasn’t worked—just look at the global economy and the environment—and that it never can, because even democratically elected representatives have to work at so high a level of abstraction that they can never really operate in anyone’s interests and can easily lose all sense of their humanity.
In place of leadership, he advocates for “participatory democracy”—something like the New England town meetings I remember from my childhood—in which everyone comes together in person to discuss problems and forge solutions through civilized debate. As evidence that this can work, Ross offers up the participatory budgeting process of the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre—which has quadrupled the number of schools, initiated renewable energy and recycling programs, and achieved near-universal water and sewerage service—and the New Orleans restoration effort, in which 4,000 former city residents scattered across the country came together in a virtual “community congress” and produced the Unified New Orleans Plan, to which 92% of the participants agreed. This sounds very much like the consensus-driven general assembly process of Occupy Wall Street, which David Graeber describes in This Changes Everything, and which you can see unfolding in something close to real time at nycga.net/category/assemblies/proposals-past/.
Ross and Kellerman see the same principles at work in the private sector in cooperatives, mutual organizations, and other companies where ownership and leadership are widely dispersed. So does Marjorie Kelly, former editor and cofounder of Business Ethics magazine. In Owning Our Future, she cites dozens of examples, including the Beverly Cooperative Bank in Massachusetts; Denmark’s Lynetten Wind Cooperative; Organic Valley, a group of more than 1,600 farm families based in Wisconsin; and the community forests of Mexico, which represent 50% to 80% of the country’s forests. All are employee- or community-owned and operate for their owners’ benefit. (Another example comes from Gary Hamel, whose December 2011 HBR article described Morning Star, a tomato-processing company, which has posted double-digit growth in volumes, revenues, and profits for 20 years with not a boss in sight.)
Intriguingly, Ross and Kelly focus on the same large-scale corporate example—the venerable UK retailer John Lewis, which, with 35 department stores, 275 Waitrose grocery stores, and more than $13 billion in revenues, is entirely owned by its 76,500 employees for the express purpose of furthering their happiness. This they did last year in part by distributing the fruits of their labors in an across-the-board 18% bonus—that is, an extra nine weeks’ pay.
Having worked happily for more than a decade in a leaderless team, I found these stories thrilling. I completely agree with Ross, Kellerman, and Kelly when they argue that self-governance can enliven and engage both employees and citizens, spurring them to feel more committed to and responsible for their companies and countries. That was certainly true for me.
And yet generalizing from the particulars in these situations is nettlesome at best. The obvious truth that leaderlessness has its virtues is a far cry from Ross’s notion (and Kellerman’s suspicion) that we’d always be better off without leaders. The citizens of New Orleans didn’t spontaneously show up on GlobalVoices.org; they were brought together by city officials. My self-managed team, while impressively expert at tactical matters and probably capable of developing strategic insights, couldn’t advocate for our views as forcefully as other teams that had dedicated managers.
And to what degree leaderlessness is working in the Occupy movement is an open question. InWhat Is Occupy? Stephen Gandel purportedly explains how the Zuccotti Park protesters got things done “with no titles and no corner offices,” thanks to a web of working groups focused on particular tasks. But within a month, he reports, the general assemblies were pared back and a smaller “spokescouncil” was created to make some of the decisions. The emergence of a “high-level committee” followed not long after—rather the way the mandatory direct-democracy town meetings in my hometown were eventually run by elected members, then supplemented by a town manager. It’s worth noting, too, that Corey Ogilvie, the filmmaker behind the crowdsourced (but expertly edited)Occupy The Movie, says his purpose isn’t to recruit more participants but to spur Obama and other leaders to take action.
Which is why it intrigues me that even though Kelly highlights many of the same examples as Ross and Kellerman do, she sees leadership not as problematic but as essential to the solution. Organic Valley and the Beverly Cooperative Bank have charismatic CEOs. Strategy at John Lewis is conducted by a CEO and a top team that looks fairly traditional, made up of the heads of finance, legal, HR, and the two main divisions. In fact, practically all of Kelly’s points about the virtues of widely shared ownership are made through very personal interviews with committed organizational leaders. And in detailing why the model is so hard to sustain, Kelly points again and again to the failure of organizations to maintain their missions once the founding leader steps down.
At the end of the day, I’m with her: The solution to bad leadership isn’t no leadership. It’s betterleadership. And, yes, maybe we will get that via essentially (or at least initially) leaderless movements like the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and Arab Spring that help us throw the bums out. But to turn their myriad passions into productive change, leaders will have to emerge.
Read More: http://hbr.org/2012/05/when-no-ones-in-charge/ar/2