Can We Finally Kill The Idea Of Leaderless Organizations?

Greg Satell
5 min readMar 2, 2024
Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

About a decade ago, the management guru Gary Hamel wrote a highly cited article in Harvard Business Review entitled First, Let’s Fire All the Managers. He analyzed the success of Morningstar, a leading manufacturer of tomato products that operates with a flat management structure and called for other corporations to follow its lead.

“A hierarchy of managers exacts a hefty tax on any organization,” he wrote. “This levy comes in several forms. First, managers add overhead and, as an organization grows, the costs of management rise in both absolute and relative terms.” The article was created a lot of buzz and helped bolster other flat models, such as Holacracy.

Yet the “flat organization” idea hasn’t caught on. “Since 1983, the size of the bureaucratic class — the number of managers and administrators in the US workforce — has more than doubled, while employment in other categories has grown by only 40%,” Hamil recently wrote. The truth is that we need managers and trying to eliminate them is a waste of time.

Planning A Spontaneous Revolution

In the early 2000s, a series of color revolutions spread across Eastern Europe sweeping away the authoritarian remnants of post-communist governments in Serbia, the Georgian Republic and Ukraine. These would prove to other revolutionary waves such as the Arab Spring. Old-style hierarchies suddenly seemed out of date.

I experienced some of these events first-hand. I was living in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution and managing the leading news organization in the country. I also spent some time in the Georgian Republic and got to see many of the reforms take place. When Hamel’s article came out, I had already begun the research that would lead to my book Cascades and I found his ideas about flat organizations not only persuasive, but inspiring.

I shouldn’t have. Even at the time, it had become clear that the revolutions weren’t as successful and many of us had hoped. In Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych had already come to power and it would take another revolution to dislodge him. In other countries, such as Egypt, new authoritarians would soon take the place of those who had been overthrown.

--

--

Greg Satell

Co-Founder: ChangeOS | Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Wharton Lecturer, HBR Contributor, - Learn more at www.GregSatell.com