Anarchy, holacracy and family

The face of anarchy? Photo: iStock.
The face of anarchy? Photo: iStock.

What do Anonymous, Occupy Wall Street, Al-Qaeda, online shoe retailer Zappos and Californian tomato processing firm Morning Star all have in common? They are all – to varying degrees – examples of leaderless organisations, or holacracies. The idea that social media and globalisation somehow combine to create a world where organsations can bubble up spontaneously has been floating around for a while now and is certainly fashionable. But before Anonymous was even a glint in a geek’s eye, families were pioneering the idea.

Probably the most famous leaderless firm is family-owned Brazilian engineering company Semco, whose owner Ricardo Semler fired 60% of the firm’s managers on the day he took over the business in 1980, at the age of 21. Workers choose their own bosses, there are no job titles and the CEO title is rotated several times a year.

Then there is Gore, also family-owned, which makes Gore-Tex, among other things, and which calls itself a “flat lattice organization” where “there are no traditional organizational charts, no chains of command, nor predetermined channels of communication”. Although it is not a family firm, shoe-retailer Zappos’ website is peppered with the word “family”.

Is there something about families – real or as in Zappos’ case aspirational – that lend themselves to leaderlessness, or at least structures where leadership is diffuse? Quite possibly, and it could be a real strength.

In an article called It Takes a Village, Harvard professor (and Family Capital contributor) John A Davis writes about the prevalence of the Unitary Leader Model, where one person takes all the decisions. Most businesses have or aim to have this system. It is so common that it is almost never even questioned.

However in family businesses, especially as they reach the cousin stage when the owners have lots of competing interests, a more diffuse sort of leadership works better to keep everyone happy. Davis gives the example of Brazilian media firm Grupo RBS where, as the company grew, the family head Nelson Sirotsky very deliberately transferred some of his powers to his non-family CEO and uncle. This is not exactly leaderlessness, but Sirotsky did give up power for the good of the whole. It worked very well.

Family firms have peculiarities that make their leadership structures, even when they notionally have a unitary leader, significantly different from non-family firms. Davis says that family heads spend half their time working on family and ownership issues, and to maintain family unity. Even at the founder stage, leadership is different to a non-family firm. For example, the wife/mother tends to be hugely influential, despite having no formal role. There is rarely a unitary leader.

In his book Community, Anarchy and Liberty the political theorist Michael Taylor studied indigenous tribes and utopian communities which tried to live in an anarchist – literally, “leaderless” – system. Taylor argued that that this was possible only in communities where people have multifaceted relationships. That is, they have emotional, social and economic relationships which all interact. That sounds an awful lot like a business family, where your line-manager is your dad and your colleague is your sister-in-law. Such a situation isn’t always sweetness and light, but these communities are stable, thought Taylor, as long as they stays small. 

Perhaps, then, the sorts of relationships that business families have mean that they are well-suited to leaderless, or diffuse, structures. If it is the unnatural formalisation of relationships that makes work so inefficient, stressful and unpleasant for many people, and which makes them hanker for leaderlessness, then it follows that family businesses might be good places for non-family employees too.