Ten Key Questions Regarding
by Jeffrey Nielsen
In my recently released book, The Myth of leadership: Creating Leaderless
Organizations, I make the case for the end of leadership as we know
it and for the creation of peer-based, leaderless organizations. Whenever
I present the ideas in the book to groups of reasonable people, similar questions
come up. Here are the ten most common questions with my responses.
- Don't we need leaders? (Doesn't someone have to be in charge? How
can you run a business without a leader?)
This question, and others like it, reveals both a positive intent as well
as some hidden assumptions. The hidden assumptions are simply those of the
rank-based myth of leadership. It is the mistaken belief that only a few
select individuals in any organization have either the right or ability
to monopolize power and control, to keep secrets and restrict both information
and participation in decision-making. We are all aware of the deleterious
effects of this rank-based management system. The positive intent is, however,
the realization that a management system is required. Obviously, there are
certain management functions that need to be performed in our organizations.
Things like setting goals and objectives, scheduling work, marshalling resources,
solving problems, and making strategic decisions. Many people imagine that
these duties can only be performed by some big chief or hierarchic leader.
I disagree and present a peer-based model for managing our organizations
through peer councils and the practice of rotational leadership.
- Isn't leadership important for an organization? (Don't we need strong
When we raise this question, what we really mean, I believe, is that vision,
wisdom, competence, teamwork, communication, and similar attributes are
important to an organization. What we fail to realize is that our very concept
and practice of leadership privilege an elite few and disadvantage the vast
majority in a way that creates a context of command and control authority
that works against the very things we desire. We need wise people. We need
visionary people. We need practical people. We need to be able to harvest
the intelligence and strength of every member of our organizations. But
I believe that our very concept and practice of leadership immediately selects
a small few and ignores the tacit knowledge of the many.
- Peer-based, leaderless organizations won't work, why do you think
To say that peer-based, leaderless organizations won't work is, I believe,
just empirically false. There are today organizations that operate in this
way and manage organizational decisions quite successfully. Companies from
practically every industry have discovered the power of peer thinking and
use it to achieve extraordinary results. I detail several of these organizations
in my book, and everyday I learn about more companies striving to become
peer-based. To say it won't work is more revealing of the implicit paradigm
of the speaker than the possibility of leaderless organizations. I base
my belief in the possibility of peer-based leaderless organizations both
on the concrete experience of companies already doing it as well as on my
confidence in our common human capacity for intellectual and moral progress.
- Don't some people have more leadership ability than other people?
The better question is, "Don't some people have more ability than others
do?" Yes, but when we add the adjective, leadership, we introduce the myth
of leadership with all its associated bad assumptions. When you drop the
"leadership," you get rid of the connotations that those with fewer abilities
should not and cannot participate in and contribute to the management of
the organization. It does not diminish the contributions a person with many
talents can make, but it does increase the opportunities for many more.
Therefore, you open it up for many more to contribute to the success of
the company. The person who thinks, "I am better or superior to those beneath
me, so I possess the right and ability to command both information and decision-making.
If I need help, I'll ask those just like me - other superior beings who
hold high leadership positions that I gave them." The person, who believes
this, is going to fail.
- Aren't you exaggerating, or overestimating, the ability of the vast
majority in organizations?
I believe in our common human capacity for goodness. I believe that each
of us possesses remarkable talents to contribute towards the success of
our organizations, and we are naturally motivated to use our talents for
something larger than ourselves. Rank-based organizations prohibit many
from such genuine contribution. I am not saying we are all equal - there
is great diversity. As Thomas Aquinas said, "Diversity manifests the perfection
of the universe." What I am saying is that we have historically organized
ourselves in rank-based ways that privilege the few over the majority. So
far too many never have the opportunity to fully develop their skills and
abilities, but live less than meaningful and satisfying organizational lives.
This time has passed. Peer-based organizations give everyone equal standing
in information sharing and participation in decision-making. We will take
on different roles and responsibilities. We will have different ambitions,
but there will be no artificial barriers that keep anyone from fully contributing
to the success of their organization. To do this, we need access to information
and participation in decision-making. Nevertheless, a peer-based organization
does not depend on the goodness of people. It appeals to each of our self-interest.
What it does do is create a peer context that enlarges one's understanding
of one's self-interest to include the "self"-interest of the organization.
- So how do you do it in my organization - or in any particular type
There isn't a textbook, ready-made, off-the-shelf answer to this question.
I do not possess the wisdom to know how a peer-based organization will take
shape in every particular type of organization. Part of the concept of peer
thinking is that inherent in every organization is the wisdom and competence
to make this happen and to apply the assumptions, logic, and practices of
peer thinking to each unique situation. It's not a model you simply superimpose
on an organization, but it is a thinking that transforms the organization
from the inside-out. However, there are important guidelines that need to
be understood and followed in creating a peer-based organization. These
guidelines are presented in my book.
- I still don't buy it. Someone has to be in charge! Everyone can't
be involved in every little decision, can they?
This question is mistaken in assuming that in a peer-based organization
no one has specific responsibilities - that it's just laissez-faire with
no direction or control. It is a false dilemma to think there are only two
options. One, either some big chief, hierarchic leader is in charge; or
two, no one is in control. This question falsely assumes that in a peer-based
organization every minor decision must be brought before everyone in some
huge committee meeting. Leaderless, peer-based organizations still have
division of labor and specific management responsibilities; the difference
is in the openness of information flow and the transparency of the decision-making
- We tried that before and it didn't work. Why should we think it will
work this time?
Well, you just can't turn people loose and say "Ok, we're all peers, now
go make it work." There are certain intellectual skills required that everyone
has the ability to develop, but not everyone has had the opportunity to
develop. Things like decision-making, problem-solving, strategic thinking,
and meeting management. All members of the organization need to develop
these skills so they can fully contribute. Some training process is required
to make this happen. Here is where the former rank-based leaders can be
very helpful. They can adopt a mentoring role and coach others in the development
of these important skills. Two competencies are especially crucial to develop
within the leaderless organization; namely, peer deliberation and consensus
decision-making, and communication skills.
- Aren't there examples of good rank-based leaders?
Of course, the myth of leadership is not an indictment of the individuals
who hold leadership positions. This is an attack on the context of rank-based
management and the inhumane and nefarious effects on rank-based leaders
and followers alike. As Robert Greenleaf and Vaclav Havel have pointed out,
the burdens and privileges of rank-based leadership positions have isolating
and corrupting influences on the well-being and happiness of the leaders
themselves. In my book, I discuss what I call the "catch-22 of rank-based
management," where I try and show the negative effects on the leaders themselves
caught in the myth of leadership. Ultimately, however, the argument is that
a peer-based organization will be strategically more competitive and successful
than its rank-based counterparts will be. Good rank-based leaders will be
even more effective as good mentors and coaches to the peer councils in
- So why call them "leaderless organizations?" Can't we just redefine
leaders as something like "peer leaders" and keep the idea of leaders and
Any conception of leadership that we could come up with will still create
a dualistic world. I have experienced this in every organization I have
consulted. We create a dichotomy, two categories: one of leaders - a select
and privileged few; and the second of followers - the vast majority. So
you get secrecy, distrust, overindulgence, and the inevitable sacrifice
of those below for the benefit of those above. That's why I have argued
for creating peer-based organizations, and the wording here is terribly
important. When we use the word "leadership," we immediately create a ranked
division of people in ways that do not serve healthy organizational relationships.
It also produces privileged elite who, no matter how sincere they are, will
eventually be seduced by their position. I define a leaderless organization
as an organization of peers. In a peer-based organization, there are ways
to perform the functions of management without rank-based leaders and in
a manner that evokes the talents and diverse abilities of everyone in the
Jeffrey Nielsen is the founder of Intellectual Capital Development. Jeff
is passionate about working with organizations to develop robust strategic
business models that help them be creative, solve problems, and optimally
adapt to their environment to create success. He specializes in strategic
consulting and training so that all individuals in an organization act strategically,
acquire knowledge-based skills that will not become obsolete, and begin to
think like owners. To this end, he has created strategy, training, and organizational
design models that give organizations the ability to transform challenges
and crises in the environment for their gain and growth.
Jeff began his consulting and training career working with the Franklin
Covey Company where he presented both the Seven Habits of Highly Effective
People and the First Things First Time Management workshops. He also taught
interpersonal communication workshops for special clients of the former Covey
Leadership Center as well as overviews of Principle Centered Leadership. In
this capacity Jeff has traveled internationally consulting with many of the
Fortune 100 companies. He has also worked extensively with health care companies,
computer and information technology companies and has frequently visited Washington
D.C. to work with a variety of groups within the Federal Government. Jeff
is also visiting lecturer at Brigham Young University and formerly at Utah
Valley State College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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