Tony Hsieh Has Opened Himself For Criticism By Embracing Holocracy
Let’s start this conversation with the following statement by Michael Lowenstein in his recent post on holocracy at Zappos:
In unilaterally moving his company to an arguably more utopian style of operations, an initiative some have felt is open to question … observers feel that Tony Hsieh has put his highly successful enterprise at some risk, and maybe more than he’d like to believe. What is the real price, to employees and customers, of such a massive culture change?
Clearly Michael Lowenstein and some other commentators do not approve of Tony Hsieh (CEO, Zappos) taking this course of action. Which is why emotionally loaded words are used: unilateral, utopian, risk.. And fear (of this change) is evoked rather than possibility. Let’s leave aside the question of whether holocracy is or is not right / workable in Zappos, whether it will work or not work. Why? Because there is no logical predetermined answer to these questions. The realm of human affairs is open-ended, not determinate, and human beings play a powerful role in influencing-shaping that which occurs. Instead, lets grapple with the questions of leadership.
Is human-centred leadership simply about giving folks what they want?
Is human-centred leadership simply about listening to the voice of the employee (and the customer) and doing that which these folks are calling for? Is human-leadership simply being responsive to the needs of the folks one is leading? It occurs to me that this is the common-simplistic understanding of human-centred leadership. And it is incorrect.
I say that the root of human-centred leadership is to articulate, stand for, and embody a new conception of what it is to be a human-being! It occurs to me that the dominant form of leadership, management and organisation design reduces human-beings to machinery, resources, pawns in the game of business; The creativity, enthusiasm, flexibility, intelligence, and responsiveness of the human-being is sacrificed at the altar of control. It occurs to me that sociocracy (and the acceptable American version, Holocracy) opens up, unconcealed, and calls forth a new conception of human_being in the workplace: human_being as a cooperative being; human_being as a social-communal being; human_being as self-directed being; human-being as a fully rounded being – thinker, carer, doer…. It occurs to me that sociocracy (and Holocracy) open up the possibility of dignity and nobility into the conception of what it is to be a human being in the workplace. And into society.
Leadership As Willingness To Speak Up, Disclose, and Stand For New Worlds of Possibility
How is it that the new is brought into being? Is it by leaving it to administrators in their many disguises (including the disguise of manager) to come up with the new? I say No! Administrators simply administer that which is. At best they administer somewhat better and tinker here and there with that which is. So who is the cause of bring the new into being? Leader: the folks who stand up, articulate a new possibility, and embody this possibility in the way they show and travel in the world.
Let’s listen to the speaking of Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky in their book Leadership On The Line:
Each day brings you opportunities to raise important questions, speak to higher values, and surface unresolved conflicts. Every day, you have a chance to make a difference in the lives of people around you.
As many have noticed our age is calling out for leaders and the exercise of leadership. There is not only opportunity but also the need to make an impact, influence change, cause a better world.. Yet there are so few leaders and whilst the exercise of leadership is open to us all, few of us exercise leadership. Why is it that just about everyone wants to be seen as a leadership and just about nobody exercises leadership?
Leading Is Risky Business!
Let’s listen again to Heifetz and Linsky (bolding mine):
….every day you must decide whether to put your contribution out there, or keep it to yourself to avoid upsetting anyone, and get through another day. You are right to be cautious. Prudence is virtue. You disturb people when you take unpopular initiatives in your community, put provocative ideas on the table in your organisation, question the gap between colleagues’ values and behaviour….. You risk people’s ire and make yourself vulnerable. Exercising leadership can get you into trouble.
To lead is to live dangerously because when leadership counts, when you lead people through difficult change, you challenge what people hold dear – their daily habits, tools, loyalties, and ways of thinking – with nothing more to offer perhaps than a possibility. Moreover, leadership often means exceeding the authority you are given to tackle the challenge at hand. People push back when you disturb the personal and institutional equilibrium they know. And people resist in all kinds of creative and unexpected ways that can get you taken out of the game…
… However gentle your style, however careful your strategy, however sure you may be that you are on the right track, leading is risky business.
Final Thoughts On Leading
I find it interesting that the folks who speak Customer lament about the lack of movement towards customer-centricity. And the finger always points at the lack of courage / unwillingness of the Tops to effect change: to put at risk the fruits of business as usual and make the significant, even drastic, changes that are involved in an organisation showing up and operating as a customer-centric. Yet, it is these very folks who are quick to step up and criticise Tony Hsieh for exercising leadership and effecting major change in the organisational design of Zappos.
Why this criticism of Tony Hsieh and of Holocracy from self-proclaimed gurus, management scientist, consultants, and the media? Ask yourself who loses out if Holocracy is embraced fully within Zappos and is made to work. Ask yourself who loses out if it does turn out that traditional management and organisational design turns out not be necessary – indeed a deficient form or organisation. Is it not all the folks that make a living from catering to this traditional way of leading-managing-organising an enterprise? If the knowledge and will to plan-organise-effect change is proven to lie with the folks in the business then what role is their for those who pander to the needs of managers? Further, think what happens if sociocracy (or one version of it Holocracy) turns out to be effective in business. Think about the implications for the way we organise all institutions and society itself. Does it not put the power and privilege of the elites at risk?
I leave you with these words of wisdom from Heifetz and Linsky (bolding mine):
Asking an entire community to change its ways …… is dangerous…..
People do not resist change, per se. People resist loss….. You appear dangerous to people when you question their values, beliefs, or habits of a lifetime. You place yourself on the line when you tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. Although you may see with clarity and passion a promising future of progress and pain, people will see with equal passion the losses you are asking them to sustain….
The hope of leadership lies in the capacity to deliver disturbing news and raise difficult questions in a way that people can absorb, prodding them to take up the message rather than ignore it or kill the messenger……
Thus, leadership requires disturbing people – but at a rate they can absorb.
I dedicate this conversation to all who exercise leadership and in doing so they put themselves on the line. That includes but is not limited to Tony Hsieh.