One point that group development theory (discussed in stages of the group) largely ignores is the possibility of dispensing with a leader or, at least, dispensing with a permanent leader. In the Red Stripe team, as in many others, it would have been possible to rotate the position of team leader weekly or monthly, either randomly or by election. The team could also have elected its leader (perhaps after the first month when things had settled down a bit and people had got a good sense of each other’s strengths and skills and personalities). I think this would have required Mike not to stand for election, otherwise he would almost inevitably have been confirmed in his role, both because of his senior status in the Economist Group and because it would be a perceived slap in the face to vote for someone else.

When he talked to me about this point at the end of the six months, Mike observed that ‘there were more people that wanted to be led, rather than lead.’ But isn’t that normally the case? As Gerard Fairtlough might say, that’s what the ‘
hegemony of hierarchy’ does for you.

When I asked Javier, the team coach, about this team leader issue, he noted that the team inevitably brought with them the impression of The Economist Group’s organisational structure and their status within it. (I couldn’t help thinking of the expression: ‘bears the impression of the last arse that sat on it…). For the project founder and champion (and CIO) to have been anything other than the team leader would have been ‘cosmetic’ and the natural order would have reasserted itself when the team found itself under pressure, said Javier. And, as for having no leader, he felt that one was needed to move the team forwards in order to meet its deadlines.

I mention this issue because it’s now widely accepted that organisations should be flatter and less hierarchical, that power should be diffused and devolved and more networked, if they are to be able to respond fast enough to the pressure for continuous change and improvement. In all that has been written about the deficiencies of command-and-control driven organisational structures, there is a clear sense that self-organising teams or workgroups operate best when they use heterarchical or co-operative or 'female' modes of operation. These can include:
  • Consensual decision-making rather than ‘orders’ imposed from above
  • Job roles and tasks within the group being rotated or changed to meet current requirements
  • Persuasion and engagement replacing the wielding of power and authority
  • The selection of leader(s) by the team, rather than having them imposed.
Javier may be right that ‘the natural order’ would have reasserted itself under pressure. Arie de Geus says something similar when he talks about the reality of decentralisation and empowerment:

Few dare to risk the accompanying loss of control. Most of those who dare
will show their fears in a crisis. They will recentralise quickly, pulling power
back into the centre and into the top. After all, beneath the rhetoric about
empowerment, most managers trust themselves infinitely more than they trust
anybody else.

But Arie’s aspirational conclusion is rather different:

To behave with ecological concern often requires a leap of faith: you will
be better protected by harmony and flocking than by territoriality and force of


Electing and/or rotating the team leader is ‘fairer’, more democratic and likely to bring a wider range of different talents to the task. But it’s also likely to be inefficient at times and may be no more than window dressing.

Ducks: Pedro Simões

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