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The Myth of Leaderless Teams and Holacracy at Zappos

A recent New York Times article featured a story on the attempts of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh to implement a concept called Holacracy in his company. The premise of Holacracy is to distribute responsibility and allow for greater self-management. Proponents claim it is the antitheses of bureaucracy and the wave of the future.

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One of the hallmarks of holacracy is the decentralization of management. In effect, they are advocating the movement towards leaderless teams. We have seen this before and much of what they preach flies in the face of human nature.     

The Zappos experiment, now in its third year, appears to be faltering. According to the Times story when Hsieh put out the edict to embrace holacracy or take a package and leave, 14% took the package and left. And, many who have remained are apparently still grumbling.  

The problem isn’t about getting rid of leaders, it’s about getting the right leaders in place. According to Gallup only 18% of those with people management responsibility are highly effective at working through people. The fact is we have a system designed to promote people into management because they are good at what they do as opposed to being good at working through others.  

Leading is an actual role, not just a title or ancillary function. It’s not about being the boss it’s about working through people by identifying their strengths, fostering growth and motivating positive action.

It’s important to note that not everybody aspires to be a manager and managing isn’t for everybody, which is why the dissemination of responsibility to everyone can be a challenge. Leaderless teams effectively make everyone a leader. Most people want to do their work and do it effectively without the worries of having to be responsible for others. Consider that a 2014 CareerBuilder survey found only one third of American workers aspire to leadership roles. The reality is that most people prefer playing over coaching and certainly aren’t interested in being player-coaches.

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To take the sports analogy further: Have you ever seen a coachless football, basketball, or baseball team? Of course you want your players to give their input for the game plan, but your certainly don’t want them spending all their time drawing up Xs and Os on the white board. You want them training and focused on what they do best, playing ball! 

Leaders at all levels from line supervisors to top executives spend a good portion of their time looking out beyond the horizon to determine the right course and maintain it until it needs to be changed. Just as any role in an organization, leading requires a lot of attention and energy! We need to focus more on developing and supporting our leaders, not eliminating them!   

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