Why Employees Should Lead Themselves
Distributed management sounds impractical, but it might help your company play a more innovative tune.
By Jeffrey Pfeffer

(Business 2.0) - The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is known principally for the musical accomplishments of its 28 members. Based in New York City, the Grammy Award-winning ensemble performs Mozart and Stravinsky to rave reviews around the world. But the group is also famous for a novel approach to management: Unlike most orchestras its size, Orpheus has no conductor.

Orpheus is not a captainless ship. It has a managing director, Ronnie Bauch, who recently spoke to MBA students at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. Bauch explained that Orpheus members share responsibility for many functions (not only keeping time but also fund-raising, staffing, and educational outreach) that most organizations assign to individual leaders. It's a distributed approach to management that at first seems impractical but that--like open-source software programming--turns out to have many advantages. Let me explain why.

The trouble with strong leaders

Bauch highlights two problems that arise under strong leaders, be they conductors or CEOs. First, valuable insights are sometimes lost because team members quell their own voices under a dominant baton. Second, subordinates learn to focus solely on their own roles, ignoring opportunities to develop new skills. In orchestras, that means musicians not only shy away from interpreting the music they play but also shun participation in vital activities such as public relations and hiring. In business, employees dismiss chances to grow, using the catchphrase "not my job." After all, why get involved in governance if the leader is going to decide things anyway? Bauch contends--and I agree with him--that this is why most people bring only about 20 percent of their potential talent and energy to their jobs.

Of course, the Orpheus model has drawbacks too. The orchestra spends more time rehearsing, because without a conductor, musicians decide among themselves how to play a piece. Auditioning new members takes extra time, since candidates are evaluated on their fit with the group's culture as well as on musical prowess. And, in a world that expects hierarchy, there's always pressure for Bauch and his colleagues to justify their nonhierarchical structure--even to their own board members.

But a lot is gained. Because people pay attention to one another instead of to one leader, they become more involved. Taking on broader responsibilities, they develop real leadership skills. (Some Orpheus members double as conductors and professors in other organizations.) The result is a sense of ownership that delivers the biggest benefit of all: a collective mind and spirit that comes through in the music. As the Boston Globe's Richard Dyer has written, there is a "liberating intensity with which these musicians listen to one another."

Changes already afoot

You might be skeptical that such a system can work in a company. But with the Internet linking employees together, distributed corporate management structures are already showing up. At Google, for instance, rather than assigning all responsibility for new products to one person, the company allows any employee to post ideas on an internal website. Colleagues then vote for the ideas they like, so popular projects rise to the top and get strategic attention.

As research by University of Southern California management professor Morgan McCall and others shows, the best way to foster leadership is to treat people like leaders. And how better to do that than by building organizations like Orpheus, where everyone feels in charge? It seems counterintuitive, but by not appointing one leader for every new initiative, you might actually be helping your people make beautiful music together.

Business 2.0 columnist Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business.

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