Blog post

Who’s in charge around here?

Is the age of the big boss over? Are more companies trusting their staff to make the decisions, as long as the outcome is a great product or service? Or do we still need a charismatic, decisive figurehead looming large over employees – or over citizens? Rob James investigates.

By The Corporate Communications Team - 9 July 2019

Whether the style is autocratic, democratic or laissezfaire, it’s largely been the tradition of organisations to have a hierarchy with ultimate power residing with one individual.But in the past few years, things have changed, particularly in the business world.

In the US, footwear firm Zappos, which is one of Amazon’s key suppliers, made the headlines in 2014 for its adoption of holacracy.

Like most ‘cracies’, the root of the word is Greek, meaning ‘an autonomous self-reliant unit’. The holacracy movement – for there is quite a community which shares the ethos – describes the system as: “Instead of operating topdown, power is distributed throughout the organisation, giving individuals and teams more freedom to self-manage, while staying aligned to the organisation’s purpose (1).”

Justifying “self-management”

Most customers may not be able to identify who the CEO of the company they are buying from is (although could easily Google it), but there would be a general expectation that the buck stops somewhere, and most probably they would expect it to be with a single – and very well-paid – person at the top.

So, as a CEO of a large company, how can you justify your eye-watering salary by telling your employees to “self-manage”? Zappos had a very clear reason why: customer service.

The company aimed for what it called ‘WOW service’, but was concerned that employees were having to go through layers of the company’s structure to get approval for feedback to customers.
The result was that the response wasn’t as quick as it should be, so they changed it, introducing a system which “allows every employee to quickly surface and act on customer feedback, so we can continuously provide WOW service, regardless of the size of our company (2).”

Across the pond, Timpsons, the UK’s leading high street chain of shoe repair and key cutting stores, developed its own approach, which had the more prosaic title of ‘upside down management’ Again, the driver was customer service and the idea was to give staff “total authority to do whatever they can to amaze our customers”.

Self-management is great in a “fast-changing environment in which the benefits of making quick adjustments far outweigh the costs,” it is argued (3). That arrangement depends on staff providing the reliability and adaptability that organisations need to keep customers happy.
But, say some academics, there is still a place for hierarchy where it “serves the institution’s fundamental goals (4)”.

What is a boss for?

So, if we still need bosses, is the single most important role of the boss to be the one spreading that spirit of self-assuredness that gives their entire team the confidence to make decisions which drive the company towards its goal?

Professor Kamil Omoteso, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Business, Law and Social Sciences at the University of Derby, argues that a confident leader is most likely to be keen to develop confident followers and, hence, develop their team and feel comfortable to delegate to them.

Furthermore,” adds Professor Omoteso, “confidence from the leader has contagion effects on their followers as it is capable of boosting their confidence level and, by extension, the confidence their stakeholders, such as clients, customers, suppliers or creditors, repose in the organisation. Confidence from leaders enhances productivity, the perception of stakeholders and corporate reputation (5).”

Can leaderless movements succeed?

One of the arguments against self-management approaches is that they can’t be done ‘at scale’, so the bigger the company, the less likely the approaches will be to succeed. So, swap ‘company’ for ‘society’, and ‘customers’ for ‘citizens’, and surely ‘leaderlessness’ can’t succeed.

Rather than forming the basis of modern communities, leaderless movements have most recently been spearheading anti-authority protest.

The so-called gilets jaunes have catapulted to international prominence for creating incidents of mass disorder in France to unsettle the political establishment.

They have no particular leader to rally around, although a number of individuals have been identified as instigators of the protests, which began in response to rising fuel prices in mid-20186.

It has been argued too that #MeToo, the movement which rose to prominence following allegations of sexual misconduct against a number of high profile figures, and the Arab Spring – the anti-government protests which swept across the Middle East from late 2010 – are also examples of essentially leaderless movements, fuelled by social media traffic and with a common purpose of speaking truth to power. But there have been question marks about their effectiveness (7).

MeToo can at least point to successes (8); the Middle East is still beset by many of the issues which prompted the protests there (9).

The Occupy movements which sprang up in 2011 were largely driven by a sense of ‘real democracy’. But their collective decision-making resulted in thousands of conflicting objectives, rather than clear, agreed goals, underlining the need for some kind of structure to articulate what they truly wanted from ‘The Man’ (10).

Is leadership finished?

Perhaps we can all be leaders – or none of us can.

In fact, maybe the age of leadership is over, say some, including Barbara Kellerman of Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership.
Kellerman devised the concept of the leadership ‘golden triangle’, which shows how leadership needs both followership and context. But those two other elements have arguably become more important than leadership itself.

“The most successful leaders in the world now have mastered… the sense that they need to pay attention to their constituents in new and different ways,” says Kellerman. Kellerman homes in on the ‘leadership industry’, including many university courses. Teaching leadership is vital, but lacking, she argues, and cannot be done “easily and quickly (11)”.

Professor Omoteso agrees that leadership could be “intuitive and learnt through experience”, but argues that degree courses “provide the foundation for unlocking leadership potentials and foundation for those who may wish to lead or be involved in training leaders in the future”.

“Leadership is taught in all sorts of different ways,” says Phil Delight, Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Management at the University of Derby.

“Through coaching, you can help people develop their own approach to leadership and to improve their effectiveness as leaders.

“But at the University, there is a greater emphasis on teaching students how to think critically, rather than to dictate to them how they should lead.”

Perhaps then, it’s the way we each use our minds to tackle the issues we face, rather than command others to, that means we have the potential to be leaders, after all.

3. ‘Beyond the Holacracy Hype’, Ethan Bernstein, John Bunch, Niko Canner, Michael Lee. Harvard Business Review, July/August 2016
4. Ibid
5. ‘Skilling up: Becoming the confident leader. Why it’s so important for CFOs to be confident- experts offer guidance on how to lead with authority.’ Lawrie Holmes, Financial Director, February 19, 2019
6. ‘Who are the gilets jaunes?’, John Lichfield, The Observer, 9 February 2019 7 ‘How to create a leaderless revolution and win lasting political change’, Carne Ross, The Guardian, 18 December 2018
8. ‘#MeToo brought down 201 powerful men. Nearly half of their replacements are women’, Audrey Carlsen, Maya Salam, Claire Cain Miller, Denise Lu, Ash Ngu, Jugal K. Patel And Zach Wichte, New York Times, 29 October 2018
9. ‘How Successful was the Arab Spring’s Only Successful Revolution?’ – Anis Guedoir, Berkeley Political Review, 23 March 2018
10. ‘How to create a leaderless revolution and win lasting political change’, Carne Ross, The Guardian, 18 December 2018
11. Barbara Kellerman, ‘The End of Leadership’, Harvard Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership, YouTube, 2012.

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About the author

The Corporate Communications Team
University Press and PR

The Corporate Communications Team manage the University's Press and PR, putting forward academics, support staff and student representatives for 'expert comment' on different topics to local and national broadcast media. The team is highly experienced in communications and journalism - locally, regionally and nationally - as well as in-house and agency public relations.