One of the things that came up in the discussion at the democratic CEO round table was the apparent paradox, that a democratic organization needs a strong leader. You’d think that the whole idea of democratic organizations, would be to eliminate the need for strong leaders so that everyone could lead according to their interests and passion. In practice this is not the case, as evidenced by the experience of those present at the round table.
I came up with the idea, that the strong leader is necessary not to make actual business, but rather to keep the democracy alive and healthy. The one thing, that is not up for the vote in a democratic organization, is whether or not to be democratic. And since the transition to democracy and the practice of democracy once you’re there is untried and can be confusing, frustrating and difficult (in addition, of course, to being fun, dynamic and energizing), someone needs to hold on strongly to the democratic principles and values.
That got me thinking about a model I came up with a couple of years ago – heavily inspired by some work in NLP, namely that at any given time, you can operate on three levels:
The lowest level is production. This is where things actually get done, and if you never spend time there, all your efforts will come to nothing. The middle level, process, is when you work on how you produce, eg. having a meeting to decide how to organize your work. The top level is values, and here you identify and strengthen the values and principles which shape the way you work.
A strong democratic leader then, is one who is active in the middle level of democracy, ie. the principles. He will not make decisions at the production level, those are made democratically. But he or she will operate at the process level, to ensure that democracy is practiced and kept alive, according to the values of the company.