Follow the Leader

I did something last week I swore I wouldn’t do again.

I joined an organization as a follower. I accepted another’s leadership.

And it feels great. 

I also wonder if my own evolving views when it comes to hierarchy speak to a wider need in the teal movement to develop mature, nuanced views around work relationships and organizational structure.

***

I left a traditional, orange-green organization six months ago. I’d spent roughly 7 years at a research and advisory firm called Great Place to Work–which was in many ways a great place to work for me. But having read Reinventing Organizations several years ago, I knew I needed to get to a teal work situation. I wanted autonomy and self-management, a deep commitment to holism and a sense of evolving purpose. I wanted more soul in how I rolled.

So I left to begin an independent professional life. For the first time in 26 years, really–since I’d joined the Oakland Tribune newspaper chain as a fulltime reporter in 1995. For the better part of three decades, I’d worked in conventional companies, with traditional, top-down chains of command. And I occupied lower rungs of those corporate ladders. 

As I’ve written elsewhere, I may have the smallest management career in history. I’ve managed one person for one day.

This tiny leadership legacy has at times caused me shame and pain. But mostly I wear those rank-and-file colors with pride. 

Beginning about four years ago, I began prioritizing purpose over promotions. 

I came to see the traditional rat race to the top as deeply flawed. Conventional management structures, I came to see, infantilized people and killed their spirits.

So when I left traditional employment Dec. 31, 2020, I was done. I was committed. I was determined to never again work with others as a peon. Only as a partner.  

Or so I thought.

***

Because last week, I effectively accepted a position in an organization with a clear leader. I took on an email address beyond my independent gmail account. I am on the Take Back Work (TBW) team. To clarify, I’m not a traditional employee at TBW. I’m one of a number of consultants banding together in pursuit of a number of specific projects. Still, we are not a team of equals. We are a team led by CEO Valerie Rivera.

I wasn’t expecting this. But it resulted from a series of conversations over several months with Val and other TBW folks. These conversations have centered on the possibility of helping some fascinating clients build more human-centered, effective, agile cultures. My role would likely be documenting progress, capturing stories and possibly taking on other tasks.

Last week, though, the TBW team of six people gathered for a three-hour virtual offsite with a different focus. Val invited us to reflect on how we could support each other in our individual endeavors. It turned into a love-fest. We told our stories, appreciated others’ journeys, shared what we needed help on and offered help to others.

I left with such a warm feeling about this team of people that I didn’t think twice when Val invited me to join the Take Back Work Slack channel. That also meant getting my new TBW email. You now can reach me at ed@takebackwork.com.

Beginning about four years ago, I began prioritizing purpose over promotions.

***

Have I betrayed my pledge to work only in flat ways? Have I abandoned my anti-hierarchical agenda? Gone back to working for the man—or in this case, the woman?

I don’t think so. And it has everyone to do with the way Val and the rest of her team define work relationships and live them out in practice.

This starts with Val’s commitment to operating her business according to teal principles. You see Val’s rejection of traditional, domination hierarchy in matters big and small. On the small front, titles in the organization convey shared authority. Yes, Val is founder and CEO. But Lauren Grimshaw is “Integrator in Chief” and Paul Thallner is “Reframer in Chief.”

It’s not just in those words that Val and TBW demonstrate a commitment to personal autonomy and distributed power.

At the virtual offsite, for example, Val devoted three precious hours to what would serve us as individuals—not necessarily what would advance her interest as company CEO. What’s more, she was open to my suggestion that we tell each other our life stories in 90 seconds as a way to bond. That exercise ballooned beyond the time I had anticipated for it—it probably took an hour or more to share each story and hear the feedback from the other five people. But again, Val went with the flow; sensing that this activity was serving the group.

When Val herself told her tale about a lifelong contrarian streak and a lot of time spent outside of her comfort zone, I was moved to use a word I usually regard with deep skepticism. I told Val she was showing great “leadership.” and I went further.

“I am proud to be your follower,” I told her.

***

I surprised myself with those words. But they aren’t shocking when I think of the kind of leadership I was appreciating in Val. This was servant leadership. It was For All leadership, as we put it at Great Place to Work.

It reflected a company hierarchy that is anything but dominating. TBW has a hierarchy, but one that feels like a natural, organic one. A fluid, collaborative structure that aligns with Val’s vision of taking back work from deadening systems and cultures that have defined most organizations and putting it in the hands and hearts of people driven to accomplish meaningful things together.

With such a mission and with Val’s teal-y consciousness, it makes sense that she would be able to create an organization that has a defined leader and a dedication to shared leadership.

What I’m learning from my collaboration with Val and TBW is that I have harbored a simplistic view of hierarchy. I’ve allowed resentment from years of being excluded from the “room where it happens” to blind me to the possibilities of non-dominating forms of leadership and followership.

On an intellectual level, I’ve known that most if not all organizations need some form of hierarchy—especially as they grow. I’ve read about the promising leadership-as-coaching model at companies like Buurtzorg Nederland. The recent book Lead Together, co-authored by my Teal Teammate Travis Marsh speaks wisely of the important roles that founder-leaders play in evolved organizations. These roles include serving as the source and steward of the company’s purpose. 

This “source” role, the keeper of the flame, also is something that investment company Pebble Wave has highlighted as vital to the success of teal companies.

But in my bones, I was wary of bowing before anyone ever again. Defiance of the old demeaning ways had inflated my ego, or at least raised my defenses.

***

I wonder if others drawn to teal culture have a similar story to tell. A tale of wounded pride morphing into a reactive stance when it comes to collaborating with others, and recognizing the value of clear—yet cooperative—leadership.

Thankfully, Val’s generous Take Back Work team-building session and its vulnerable storytelling cracked open my heart. And from there, my mind opened wider.

As if I needed any more convincing to throw my lot in with Val, a text exchange the day I got my TBW email account fortified my decision.

“I’m so honored to be invited into your crew,” I wrote to her.

Val wrote back with humility and gratitude: “I feel like the lucky one!” 

That’s the kind of leader I’m happy to follow.

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