Sunday, August 30, 2009

“I like being able to say turn right, and we truly have 67,000 people turn right.”

That quote is from John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems from an interview he gave earlier this month to the New York Times. To be fair to him, he then said something in addition that. But for now, bear with me while I examine his quote.

I worked at Cisco towards the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, a time when the internet phenomenon was beginning to take off. His quote has particular meaning for me now, given all the research and work I’ve done related to Systems Thinking and bosses.

What struck me during my time at Cisco was a very, very strange dichotomy. On one hand, the company was very enlightened in that it allowed employees to access to everything on the internet. This was at a time when many employers blocked off access to innocuous sites such as Hotmail and news sites, fearing that employees would waste time. Cisco’s stand was roughly along the lines of, “When phones first made their entrance in the office, employers feared people would sit on the phone all day long. Hence, they let only a select few employees have phones. But today, companies give every employee a phone because they trust their employees to use phones responsibly. You can’t possibly work without a phone. And if we can trust you to use the phone responsibly, we can trust you to use the internet responsibly.”

That said, I was also struck by the command-and-control atmosphere present. It seemed that while Cisco was creating technologies that were apparently flattening hierarchies, a strong under-current of “chain-of-command” was ever-present.

I always wondered about this dichotomy. One thing I always felt strongly was that a company as enlightened as Cisco couldn’t possibly be command-and-control oriented. It simply didn’t make sense and I couldn’t figure it out. But I put it down to one of life’s mysteries and moved on.

The mystery was solved recently when I read an interview with Cisco’s CEO, John Chambers. In response to a question on his leadership style, Chambers answered, “I’m a command-and-control person. I like being able to say turn right, and we truly have 67,000 people turn right.”

I think this is plain crazy. How can you have 67,000 people all sincerely and whole-heartedly turn in the direction the CEO wants them to? Surely there would be some dissent, some grumbling? I’ve always thought the real measure of teamwork is not when everyone says “Yes Sir” and smartly turns when ordered to turn. You know there’s real teamwork when people are openly offering their opinions without fear rather than dutifully taking orders.

From my research, I know that the attitude of top management travels right down the chain-of-command. And so it was at Cisco – the command-and-control attitude traveled right down. Of course, Cisco is not unique in this. Virtually every modern corporation functions this way.

To his credit, Chambers continued to answer the leadership style question by saying, “But that’s the style of the past. Today’s world requires a different leadership style — more collaboration and teamwork, including using Web 2.0 technologies.”

Chambers was also asked, “What’s changed in the last few years?” His answer: “Big time, the importance of collaboration. Big time, people who have teamwork skills.”

What strikes me about this response is, what was so different about “yesterday’s world” that required a command-and-control style? People are still the same. Human beings haven’t changed much – if at all - in 10 years. Why on earth couldn’t we have more collaboration and teamwork decades ago? Saying collaboration technologies didn’t exist would be a red herring. People have been collaborating and working in teams since the Stone Age, hunting together for example.

What I feel is that Chambers has recognized that the world is a complex place; it always has been – and the way to deal with complexity is not hierarchy but teamwork and collaboration. Moreover, Chambers comes from a generation of ‘leaders’ who have grown up under the command-and-control philosophy so I don’t blame him. At least he has recognized that the old ways don’t work. But the answer lies not in new technology. It lies in new systems that have freedom as the emergent property – without real freedom, you cannot have real teamwork and real collaboration.

(If you have any comments, please email me at You can get more information about my book and reader comments at

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Even pirates in the 18th century got to vote for their boss!

There's a new book called The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, by Peter T. Leeson (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 296 pages, $24.95).
An article in Reason reviewing the book talks about the differences in the ways in which pirates and sailors on legitimate ships worked:
"[A] pirate’s life had less publicized qualities as well: Ships were known among sailors for their relatively decent living conditions, profitsharing opportunities, democratic practices, and racially integrated crews. Life “on the account,” as pirating was known, was often far more civilized than legitimate seamanship.

"[Pirates] invented their own ways of doing business. Decades before the American Founders got their act together, pirates were drafting documents full of voting rights, juries, checks and balances, rules for property allocation, even methods for impeachment. The buccaneers may have been less concerned with natural rights than with survival and claiming their fair share of booty, but the end result feels surprisingly like the kind of self-governance we expect from enlightened modern republics. Perhaps even better, since the deal was truly voluntary (for the pirates if not their prey). No one is born a pirate, and everyone has to swear into the contract on each venture.

"[T]his “rougish Commonwealth” also had due process. Caprtains were elected, and they could be removed by a vote of the crew. Speeches were given for and against candidates. One of Capt. Roberts’ sailors, for example, urged his fellows to vote for a leader “who by his Counsel and Bravery seems best able to defend this Commonwealth... such a one I take Roberts to be. A Fellow! I think, in all Respects, worthy of your Esteem and Favour.” Speeches also contained warnings and reminders of the power of the people: “Should a Captain be so saucy as to exceed Prescription at any time, why down with him! it will be a Caution after he is dead to his Successors, of what fatal Consequence any sort of assuming may be.

"Balancing the powers of the captain was the quartermaster, the captain’s peacetime counterpart. Sort of a den mother with a blunderbuss, he oversaw the distribution of loot and generally kept peace on the ship by enforcing the rules and arbitrating disputes. He too could be replaced at any time by a vote."
And in contrast, here's a look at the lives of (legitimate but lowly) sailors:
"If legally sanctioned sailor pay was bad, the working coditions were worse. Captains on merchant ships held absolute power over their crews, and they regularly ordered floggings, revoked pay or rations, or tied men to the mast. Sailors could sue when they got home, and they occasionally won, but that’s cold comfort when you’re six months at sea, stripes from the lash stinging your back, and ordered to forfeit your rum ration."
And here we are, in the 21st century, working in dictatorship systems that even pirates of the 18th century did not stand for!

For the record: Obviously, I do not support or condone piracy in any way.

(If you have any comments, please email me at You can get more information about my book and reader comments at

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The insanity of our organization hierarchies

Some time back, I read a quote that went something like this: “A soldier will not be scared of his enemy on the battlefield, but that same soldier will be scared of his boss in the bureaucracy.”

I don’t know who said that. But I read an article in Time magazine that made every word of the quote ring true. The article, titled “Why Are Army Recruiters Killing Themselves?” speaks about army recruiters who are committing suicide after suffering unrelenting pressure from their superiors.

The paradoxical part is this: most of these recruiters have fought in the battlefield. According to the article, “Soldiers who have returned from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan now constitute 73% of recruiters, up from 38% in 2005.”

The article states, “Last year alone, the number of recruiters who killed themselves was triple the overall Army rate.”

The pressure to recruit is very high, with rules being bent so that targets are met. Lawrence Kagawa, who retired a highly decorated recruiter, said, “You'll be told to call Johnny or Susan and tell them to lie and say they've never had asthma like they told you, that they don't have a juvenile criminal history. That recruiter is going to bend the rules and get the lies told and process the fraudulent paperwork.”

If the recruiter refused, the commander is “going to tell you point-blank that 'we have a loyalty issue here, and if I give you a "no" for loyalty on your annual report, your career is over.”

The army conducted an investigation into the deaths, and found that recruiters suffered from under a “poor command climate”, in addition to working punishing schedules in isolation from family and friends.

What does “poor command climate” really mean? Bad bosses. And exactly how bad are the bosses?

The article goes on to say:

“Christina Montalvo [a recruiter], had tried to kill herself a few years earlier, gulping a handful of prescription sleeping pills in a suicide attempt that was thwarted when a co-worker found her. Montalvo says a boss bullied her about her weight. And she was shocked by the abuse that senior sergeants routinely levied on subordinates. "I'd never been in a unit before where soldiers publicly humiliated other soldiers," says Montalvo, who left the Army in 2002 after 16 years. "If they don't make mission, they're humiliated and embarrassed.”

Another recruiter, Nils Andersson, had served two tours in Iraq, winning a Bronze Star. He killed himself while working as a recruiter. The article adds, “In the week before his suicide, Andersson was ordered to write three separate essays explaining his failure to line up prospective recruits. A fellow recruiter later told Army investigators that commanders "humiliated" this decorated battlefield soldier during a training session: “He was under a constant grind — incredible pressure. He just became numb.”

And there’s more:

His [Staff Sergeant Floreto, who hanged himself] superiors ordered him attend what the Army calls "low-production training. When you're getting home at 11 and getting up at 4, it's tough, but it's the dressing down that really got to him," says a recruiter who worked alongside Flores. "They had him crying like a kid in the office, telling him he was no good and that they were going to pull his stripes."

I would urge you to read the full Time magazine article to see the havoc the workplace dictatorship system can wreak.

But before you do that, here’s another line from the article, which quotes an email from the “leadership” after they decided to hold a picnic to improve morale: "Family fun is mandatory.”

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Friday, January 09, 2009

The death of kindness

A reader of my book wrote in to me with the link to this article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Love thy neighbour. The article states, “Kindness has gone out of fashion. In the age of the rampant free market and the selfish gene, compassion is seen as either narcissism or weakness.”

The article adds:

“Most people, as they grow up now, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers.

"There is nothing we feel more consistently deprived of than kindness; the unkindness of others has become our contemporary complaint. Kindness consistently preoccupies us, and yet most of us are unable to live a life guided by it.

People placed under unremitting pressure become estranged from each other. Like the bullied child who bullies others in turn, individuals coerced by circumstances become coercers. Sympathies contract as open-heartedness begins to feel too exposed. Paranoia blossoms as people seek scapegoats for their unhappiness. Such scapegoating is a self-betrayal because it involves sacrificing our kindness.”


We spend a large part of our lives at our workplaces, which are dictatorship systems. The emotions this system produces – fear, anger, paranoia, and so on – are bound to spill over into our non-working lives. As the research I’ve quoted in my book shows, people bullied turn into bullies themselves. Those bullied at the office can bring their anger home, bullying those less powerful than themselves.

It sounds a bit of a stretch to say that the dictatorship system is to blame for the lack of kindness and compassion in our lives, but I would say that it’s at least partly to blame.

(If you have any comments, please email me at You can get more information about my book and reader comments at