Flipping the Script

“Man should not be in the service of society; society should be in the service of man. When man is in the service of society, you have a monster state, and that’s what is threatening the world at this minute.”

—Joseph Campbell

The first mission of any company should be to make work meaningful, rewarding, and fulfilling. Work should enhance the lives of the people who do it, and this is accomplished by flipping the script on the traditional model of centralized leadership.

For centuries organizations have been prioritized and their participants taught to sacrifice on their behalf. In business this meant that the employee existed to serve the company. Workers were a corporate asset to be deployed for the corporate good.

Consider for a moment the inversion of that long-standing formula. Imagine a company that exists to serve the people who work there. Imagine a company that creates a place of work where humans learn, lead, share community, and find their authentic voice. Imagine a company that helps everyone within feel trusted, respected, valued, heard, and safe. Imagine that these new objectives become the first corporate mission and the company then soars on the wings of thriving humans at work.

This paradigm shift is surprisingly simple to make. Sharing leadership, dispersing power, and respecting all voices is a more historically natural human state than hoarding leadership, centralizing power, and controlling others. A command-and-control model takes mountains of rules, excessive supervision, and lots of dogma. Even then, it doesn’t work very well. Centralized control is hard to hold together. So why do we cling to it so?

The challenge lies in overcoming centuries of indoctrination. We’ve been sold a carefully crafted set of stories designed to reinforce the traditions of hierarchy, bureaucracy, power to the center, and leadership by a few. The Bible tells of the Great Fall. Eve picked the fruit and ate it. Adam followed and ate it, too. Both were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Sin became the fate of humankind. Humans thereafter were deemed weak before temptation, untrustworthy when left to their own volition. Our inclination to sin justified the need for our supervision.

The Doctrine of Discovery was given life in the fifteenth century by Europe’s leading nation-states. This edict gave Christian kings the right to claim any land and plunder any indigenous societies not already converted to Christianity. Based on this proclamation, colonialism thrived. Certain groups of humans were now ordained to rule and guide other, lesser groups.

The seventeenth century witnessed the ascension of the Divine Right of Kings. Kings derived their authority to rule from God, and their will was therefore beyond reproach. Kings were exceptional humans, ordained to lead. Rebellion against the king was the equivalent of a rebellion against God.

The depth to which history will go to affirm this centralization of power is by no means limited to Western Europe. The Soviet Union was led by those who were anointed to be “First among equals.” Today the 95 million members of the Chinese Communist Party use their centralized authority to rule over 1.4 billion citizens. It’s all cause for pause. If we don’t stop to reflect and understand the trail of mistruths, we will not be able to reengineer a new model of leadership for the future.

I’ve spent a great deal of time on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. There I have listened to stories about the “old ways,” before the Reservation era. In traditional Lakota society, leadership power was dispersed and shared. Hierarchy was difficult to find. No one was elected, nor did they hold power for indefinite terms. People banded together for their mutual benefit, following others only so long as it felt generative and good.

Treaty makers from Washington, DC, would show up on the plains in the nineteenth century and say to the first group of Indians they saw, “Take me to your leader.” But none of the Indians understood what that meant in American terms. There was no single person who spoke for everyone. No one made major decisions for others. Everyone was the leader of their own voice and spirit. Studies of pre-agricultural societies reveal these same fundamental truths time and time again. The natural state of human society is one of dispersed power and shared leadership.

Now is the time to rebuild human institutions around a fresh model of shared leadership, and corporations are prime candidates to lead this transformation. All that is required is four commitments:

#1. Change the corporate mission.

  • The company exists to serve the people who work there.
  • The company can then soar on the wings of thriving humans at work.

#2. Change the company’s key metrics.

  • Corporations have many metrics regarding their business performance.
  • What’s needed is a new set of metrics focused on the employee experience. An engagement survey administered by a third party is a great way to apply real data to the human experience at work.

#3. Change the business communication systems.

  • The old model is to make sure the voice of management is heard.
  • The new model is to make sure the voice of the employee is heard.

#4. Change the purpose of listening.

  • The old purpose of listening was judgment.
  • The new purpose of listening is understanding. The goal is to make the company safe for people to be their authentic selves and say what they truly think. I call this the “answers to the test.” Employees know precisely where a company’s strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities lie because they live in that value stream every day.

The new management model of dispersed power is easy to ignite because it’s our natural state. All that is required is for you to become the change you wish to see. Leadership is about giving other people a stronger voice. When this happens, a company can truly soar as the outcome of a higher calling.


Thank you for considering my thoughts. In return I honor yours. 

Every voice matters. Nestled between our differences lies our future.