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When nobody (and everybody) is the boss

March 5, 2012: 11:47 AM ET

The best bosses understand that their power comes not from maintaining control, but from devising ways to unleash more freedom, creativity, and contribution.

Every Whole Foods store is made up of a dozen or so self-managed teams, and the leadership of the company forms a team where all decisions are made by majority vote.

By Polly LaBarre, contributor

(TheMIX) -- As a reverse fairy tale for the CEO set, the reality television program Undercover Boss is fascinating, not so much in the witness-to-a-train- wreck mode of the rest of the genre, but because it is so revealing of our conflicted relationship with "the boss."

The premise of the show -- that the only way to get a clue about what's really going on in his (or her) organization, is for the boss to go undercover on the front lines -- is all too often the actual reality in organizations of any size. Yet, at the same time, the view of the boss as the ultimate authority with the heroic power to swoop in and save the day -- whether that means paying down a mortgage, granting an instant promotion, or banishing a reviled policy -- holds sway in real life as well as on "reality" TV.

Few figures are simultaneously as reviled and revered as "the boss." The problem isn't with the people who fill the role (that's another story), but the role itself. The "modern" organization was founded on the principle of control -- a central authority sets direction, corrals information, curtails decision-making power, and punishes deviations from the norm.

That might have worked in a world in which standardization, predictability, conformity, and discipline were enough to mass produce profits. But it doesn't work in a world of constant change, competition from everyone and everywhere, and commoditized knowledge. And it certainly doesn't work in a world in which there is so much hunger for greater humanity, freedom, and meaning.

We've reached an inflection point when it comes to how we organize human effort. The most inspiring organizations today are experimenting with what gets people out of bed in the morning and what fires up their imagination, initiative, and passion. And the best bosses understand that their power comes not from maintaining control, but from devising ways to unleash more freedom and creativity among their people.

Of course, the ideology of control is deeply embedded in our organizations. Chiseling around the edges won't lead to meaningful change. This is why it's so instructive to learn from organizations that have exploded the traditional hierarchy and learned to rule without bosses and manage without managers. These long-running experiments in organizational democracy and radical autonomy may have been "born this way," but they offer up a set of insights and approaches for rethinking and redistributing leadership at any organization.

Put peers before bosses

Morning Star is the world's largest tomato processor and probably one of the most remarkable models of managing without managers in the world. The central California company was founded by Chris Rufer in 1970 with a distinct organizational approach. According to Paul Green, Jr., who runs Morning Star's training and development, that philosophy assumes that "people are happiest when they have personal control over their lives; that the best human organizations are those in which people aren't managed by others, but in which participants coordinate among themselves, managing their own relationships and commitments to others." More

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