You're A Dictatorship That Gathers Individual Democracies—Good For You

I write this with some trepidation. You're already overwhelmed with anything that includes certain words: vote, count, absentee, electoral, steal, and so on. But I'm not sure there's a better time to talk about democracy and what it takes to sustain one.

I'm not a political expert, though I did serve in elected office (in a very small town) and didn't get reelected, so there's that. I've also lived under a dictatorship described as a democracy during which 200,000 people were killed, including some friends, in Guatemala's Civil War. Our town of San Miguel Acatán was right in the thick of it.

But I'm not headed where you think I'm headed with this. Instead, I want to pause for a minute and look at your firm through a political lens, and then suggest a few things that might set things straight in your head.

Your business is not a democracy but rather an autocracy (or dictatorship).

I think that's good and I wouldn't have it any other way. Here are a few short statements that build on each other:

  1. Your team is essential to what you accomplish for clients.
  2. Their effectiveness depends, in part, on harnessing the combined skills and outlook of those individuals around a common goal, positioning, culture, whatever.
  3. As a leader, your job is to set that agenda and then weave a great team together. The agenda will be a lighthouse that will gather those who are committed to that agenda, with these people.

Yes, there's an understandable give and take around the employer/employee relationship, but there is a leader and there is a follower. The followers who are also leaders carve out subgroups within that vision and they wrestle a unique combination toward it.

You are a dictatorship, though hopefully a benevolent and empathetic one. Each team member is a mini-democracy, and this (usually) unwritten contract works because of one little fact: the consent of the governed. This goes back to Plato, but it was popularized by John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, and then incorporated into the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson.

Here's what that means in real life:

  • Employment is essentially deciding what dictatorship I want to hitch my little democracy to. I need to know what I'm getting into and I need my own personal needs fulfilled: money, impact, relationship, and so on.
  • If things change and I'm no longer aligned with one or more of those things, I'll hitch my democracy to a different dictatorship. Or I'll just go off and create a dictatorship of my own.
  • You need to listen to "the governed" or they'll withdraw their consent and go be governed somewhere else.

But, and here's the critical point I'd make: the minute your dictatorship becomes a democracy, you're going to initiate an inevitable slide to irrelevance. It might take years, but it will happen. Democracies are a terrible way to run things, but it'll have to do until we invent something that works better in the public realm. But over and over again we see how voters make choices in their own self-interest with little thought for the future. Strong nations are steered by strong leaders, with the consent of the governed. Strong firms are steered by strong leaders, also with the consent of the governed, except for one big difference. If you don't like your elected leader, do what you can to change things but your ultimate option is to vote someone else in. In a firm, your ultimate option is to leave.

You should and must listen to the "governed" at your firm, but this is your firm. Know what you want, make it very clear, and then see who will follow. If you screw up, 'fess up and try again, but never quit leading.

You started this firm because you wanted a different culture, a better compensation structure, exceptional client criteria, and a better work/life balance. So look at those four areas, regularly, and make sure that the tradeoffs are still there. Make sure you're still in charge.

Every person has some degree of agency ("agency" as used in economics), including leaders and followers. Every successful agency has a leader who has made careful decisions and communicated them well to maintain that delicate balance that builds on the consent of the governed, each of which is a single-occupant democracy attaching itself to a benevolent dictatorship.

This healthy tension keeps (most of) us relatively honest. That tension isn't so much between leader and follower as much as it is between now and later.

Right now I don't have time to think about my long-term marketing plan.

Right now I need to get this done for a whining client rather than having that difficult conversation with Bob.

Right now I'm loving the steady income from this client even though I know it's taking us off course.

Right now our biggest client loves her contact and so I'm going to overlook this, just for now.

If there's one thing that democracies are really, really bad about, it has to be making smart decisions for the future.

That's your job.

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