What Does Leadership in Self-Organization Look Like?


Leadership within a traditional hierarchical structure is the one with which most organizations are familiar: a top-down format within a triangle where managers are the main decision makers. So what happens when that structure becomes a hierarchy of work rather than a hierarchy of people? How is leadership in self-organization different?

Distribution of Authority

Holacracy, one of the most well-known systems of self-organization, is often referred to as a flat structure rather than a hierarchy, which is misleading. It is a hierarchy, but one of size. Think of Russian nesting dolls as an analogy: each doll taking a piece that aligns with the company purpose and rolls up into the higher purpose of the organization. Circles are created to house the different areas of work a business has, with each circle still fitting into the main goals of the company.

Unlike a traditional management system, Holacracy distributes authority as well as accountability. “What is unique about Holacracy is that the power that managers had is now distributed to every single employee,” says Alexis Gonzales-Black, Lead Link of Holacracy Implementation at Zappos. “Everyone’s now responsible for taking their experiences in their job to drive the company forward.” So what does that look like?

Freeing up the Pipeline

Finding and developing good managers is a universal struggle for most organizations. The list of responsibilities that falls under the title of manager are vast, and at times may seem endless. From performance reviews to resource allocation, prioritization to mentorship, the hats a manager wears can add up. But within Holacracy, Zappos is exploring ways of freeing up that pipeline. One possibility is splitting out the accountabilities of a traditional manager into 3 separate roles, the work becomes more focused and more efficient. A Lead Link focuses mainly on the resource allocation and prioritization of the work within their team, or circle. A #Mentor’s main strengths live within the world of mentorship and role of advisor. A Contribution Appraiser has the responsibility of performance reviews and assessing job titles. So what once fell on the shoulders of one person is now distributed throughout several channels, alleviating the pressures and pitfalls that can stem from such an all-inclusive role as manager.

Everyone Is a Sensor

Just as the traditional sense of manager gets turned on its head, so too does that of the employee. Self-organization allows each person to adopt a start-up view of their work.  Gonzales-Black offers, “The filter I try to run through is, ‘If it was my company, what would I do?’ I think it’s important for people to embody that.” Holacracy’s structure allows the freedom and puts the responsibility on each employee to create solutions when faced with obstacles. Instead of mounting frustrations and dead ends, employees are able to find and connect with the right people and circles to move an idea forward or surface a tension they’re sensing. It’s no longer about giving those concerns to someone else; it’s now about owning those concerns and finding solutions.


One of the other benefits of self-organization is that of transparency. While Zappos always aims for transparency, this new structure offers even more access and understanding now. Upon returning to Zappos after several months, Arun Rajan, Lead Link of Flywheel Strategy at Zappos made the following observation: “I know more about the organization now than I did compared to when I left 8 months ago. The whole organization is cataloged.” Whereas connecting with the right people on a project or staying updated on key developments can sometimes be a wild goose chase in a large company, under Holacracy, anyone can look someone up and see their accountabilities and how they contribute, or identify the right circle where a particular project lives.

Like any huge mindshift, Holacracy is not without its challenges. “It’s training managers to step back and people to step forward that’s really difficult,” says Gonzales-Black. Fortune favors the bold, the saying goes. The same can be said of self-organization. It encourages every employee to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset that not only senses tensions, but that takes the initiative and seeks solutions, as well.

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Author: Erica Spelman

Tags: Holacracy

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