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Boss, Leader, or Team?

I have a cartoon on my wall (amongst my collection of socially and politically relevant material) which depicts two management styles. There are two images of a team of three people trying to move a heavy weight and in one the “boss” is sitting on top of the weight (and therefore making it even heavier and harder to shift) at his desk, giving out orders. In the second the “leader” is at the front of the team, helping to shift the weight, and indicating the best direction to go.

The symbolism is obvious and I’m sure most people would know which category the vast majority of managers belong in. They are the type who not only perform no useful function but actually make getting the job done even harder for the people actually doing it.

I honestly believe that many organisations would be better off just to put their managers in a room where they can have meetings all day but never do anything in the real world. I’m not making a rhetorical point here, I really do believe we would be better to pay them to do nothing (assuming they have to exist at all, but disposing of them all would be too big a step for most organisations).

But my real point is this: is it possible to have a third model where all 4 team members share equally in both the work and the decision making? Could all the team members look at the challenge ahead and decide the best course of action instead of just relying on the opinion of the one who is designated leader?

Because, in the end, the decisions made by management really are just opinions being imposed on other people simply because of an artificial hierarchy which has been created (by managers, of course). They have no natural right to impose their views on others. And they have no real justification for those opinions, because business cases can be used to justify anything, and it seems in most cases that the decision is made first, based on personal preferences, then a case is prepared to justify it.

You might be thinking at this point that this argument is somewhat hypocritical, because it’s just my opinion that management opinions are unreliable and untrustworthy. But I do have some evidence supporting my view. The wisdom of crowds is a well established phenomenon in both social science and statistical theory. Basically, in many circumstances, a large number of opinions, when properly aggregated, lead to far more accurate appraisals of the real world than an individual’s assessment.

So there is the simple fact that multiple opinions are usually better than just one. But it goes beyond that, because the leaders often have a very distorted view of what their decisions are trying to achieve. A positive spin on it would be to say that they see “the big picture” but it would be equally valid to say they see a picture devoid of any connection with reality.

And if none of the above appeals there is one last point I would make in support of my “team leadership” idea. That is the decisions are made by those they affect. In a top-down model the decisions are made by a leader, but the negative consequences are dealt with by those who must carry out the new idea. At least if a team finds themselves trying to implement a bad idea they know it is their own and can fix it.

I’m not necessarily suggesting this model (which I will call the “team” model as opposed to the “boss” and “leader” models in the cartoon) is the best solution, but I am wondering if it could work and why it isn’t considered as an option in more organisations (it has been attempted in some situations with mixed results).

The real danger with these new and radical ideas is that, even if the current system seems fairly bad, it still might be the best we can hope for given the vagaries of human nature and the realities of actual social and political interactions. Maybe the leader model is the best we can hope for. Or maybe – an even more depressing thought – the boss model, no matter how bad it seems on the surface, is best. I certainly hope not!

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