- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press (February 12, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1578514401
- ISBN-13: 978-1578514403
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 5 customer reviews
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- #1372 in Books > Politics & Social Sciences > Politics & Government > Elections & Political Process > Leadership
- #4079 in Books > Politics & Social Sciences > Politics & Government > Ideologies & Doctrines > Democracy
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A Company of Citizens: What the World's First Democracy Teaches Leaders About Creating Great Organizations
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From Publishers Weekly
The authors of this earnest manifesto-a Chief Learning Officer and a classics professor, respectively-take ancient Athens, with its "reputation for excellence" and its "ability to generate growth" and attract talent, as the original example of a successful organization. Its achievements, they argue, flowed from its unique participatory democracy, which balanced "inspired leadership with democratic decision-making" and aligned citizens' interests to the common good without stifling individual initiative. Thus the city-state provides a model of organizational governance, one particularly suited to companies with "knowledge workers bent on 'doing their own thing.'" Although couched in ponderous management-ese, the book's praise of democracy as a management tool is backed by an interesting reading of Greek history. But the authors draw few practicable innovations from the comparison, because its implications are often too vague (they suggest "networks of networks," for instance) or radical (such as a rotation of leadership roles). The authors celebrate Athenian voting, but they don't conclude that rank-and-file workers should vote on company policy; and that time-honored institution of work-place democracy, the labor union, goes unmentioned. And while they chide Athens for excluding women and its large slave population from citizenship, they don't fully extend that argument to corporations. To the authors, corporate citizenship is an "honor" suitable for "a substantial number" of a company's workforce-a belief that suggests that true democratic citizenship is still a subversive idea, even for management theorists.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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A large portion of the book consists of a discussion and breakdown of what the authors term the core elements of the Athenian democratic system: "democratic values, governance structures, and participatory practices." The basis of the widespread participation by Athenian citizens in the affairs of state was an unprecedented freedom and equality. There was not a layer of elites that trumped the various citizen assemblies, and any leaders chosen remained accountable to those assemblies. There was frequent rotation of citizens among the various bodies performing legislative, executive, and judicial functions. The art and responsibility of governing was widely distributed among Athenian citizens.
The authors focus on the Athenian concerns for defense and the domination of neighboring city-states as evidence of the positive workings of the Athenian democracy. But the authors make little mention of the economy of Athens, which is surprising since this book attempts to address the relevance of the Athens model to modern private enterprises. They make the claim that redistribution of private assets was not part of Athenian policies. But the redistribution of power or economic goods in the name of fairness and the wellbeing of communities is invariably part of democracies. That is a fundamental principle of modern social-democratic states, and, one guesses, of the Athens city-state.
For both communities and organizations, issues of "who can be members" and "the permanency of membership" are primary. An oddity by today's standards, citizenship in the Athens city-state was limited to native-born males. Unfortunately, the authors seem to have been unduly swayed by that restriction by pondering whether levels of membership will need to be established in firms employing workers with varying degrees of importance to their firms' success. However, a caste system is a dubious proposition for a modern democratic community. As a further consideration, in most genuine communities, members are protected by the group and not cast aside in difficult times. Yet the authors see "downsizing" as a possible action by democratic communities, though perhaps distasteful. The damage to an organization's fabric is not discussed.
The oft-repeated, hollow slogan of modern companies, "the people are the company," certainly had validity in Athens. There can be no state without citizens. But modern companies have legal, independent standing and are generally owned by outside shareholders, not workers. The reality is that workers are more like "wage slaves," not citizens of their companies with long-term, essential standing, legal or otherwise. The authors briefly touch on the necessity of redefining and reprioritizing the concept of "stakeholder" in modern companies. Obviously, a company of citizens cannot be trumped by absentee owners and still be a democratic community.
Closely tied to the issue of ownership of a firm is the role of management. The difficulties in transforming a company being operated by a managerial elite backed by a board of directors to one governed by employee-citizens cannot be exaggerated. A company of citizens cannot simply be mandated with power being retained by some overriding authority, no matter how enlightened. The authors point out that a democracy evolves through experimentation and mistakes by citizens. It is difficult to envision a modern CEO permitting his authority to be eliminated, let alone diminished, or allowing himself to be rotated out of the job. In addition, a huge issue is whether modern workers can really embrace and accept the responsibilities of democracy.
The emphasis on the Athens city-state is instructive from the standpoint of describing a "strong" democracy, despite some of its shortcomings. But one could ask whether it is even necessary to turn to ancient history to shed light on employees trying to find empowerment within their workplaces. The labor movement has struggled since the beginnings of industrialization to gain a voice for workers within enterprises. The authors do not present in the main text any examples of companies where employees are full citizens. It would have been interesting for the authors to comment on the well known example of the Saturn Corporation as to its fit as a company of citizens. Or perhaps the works council systems found in Europe could have been mentioned.
The authors repeatedly make the point that a company of citizens must be concerned with a "steep performance challenge," but why the condition? One would think that those advocating for democracy would do so on the fundamental basis of citizens controlling their destiny and not on the existence of some unusual circumstance. The book is thought provoking. But far too much space is devoted to the Athens city-state and the attempt to capture its workings in a set of textbook-like generalizations. There is little in this book that leads one to believe that the U.S. will be establishing companies of citizens any time soon. Nor is the book much in the way of a blueprint of how to do so. In some respects this book can be added to a large list of management books that talk employee empowerment, but don't quite get it.
Classical Athens, however, would hardly qualify as a "democracy" by today's standards. Slaves composed two-fifths of the Classical Athenian population [Encycl Britannica]. (In comparison, calculations from the 1860 census indicate that the Confederate South had a lower percentage of slaves.) Even in the 5th century BC where there might have been a very low number of slaves, Athens continued to be a patriarchal society where men virtually monopolized access to education and power. So, it seems to me that studying the patriarchal, slave-dependent pre-Civil War South as a model of democracy might be just as good as (if not better than) studying Classical Athens.
In order to apply principles gleaned from Classical Athens, I think one of two approaches must be taken. One approach would be to draw an analogy between the ancient civilization's dependence on slavery with our dependence on something else. Perhaps we "leaders" and "knowledge workers" can think of entry-level associates and other subordinates as substitute for chattel. (I personally find this rather difficult, because I have been inculcated somewhat with egalitarianism.) The other approach might be to assume that slavery and patriarchy are somehow negligible in the context of this discussion. I personally find this rather difficult to do as well.
The authors do not completely ignore this obstacle. They "assure" us that they do know the "historical detail and scholarly debates". However, I was not able to find on what page they impart any of this knowledge so that we too can ignore the majority of the Athenian population that was disenfranchised. I am hoping that they will address my concern with greater clarity in the preface of the next edition. If I can understand their perspective, this book might be worth reading.
This book is good for a number of audiences. It is good for readers that do not have a good understanding of Classical History, so that they can unquestioningly accept the idealistic picture of ancient Athens that the authors portray. This book is also for readers that have such a good understanding of Classical History that they can rationalize away the "trifling" details I have noted. Unfortunately, I am neither a Classical History major nor a non-Classics major that managed to evade my history general ed requirements.
I think that there's something important to be learned from ancient civilizations, and no civilization is perfect. However, glossing over inconvenient truths might ironically make the text harder to read. My hope is that the authors will revise the introductory parts of this book so that the core message can be communicated with greater clarity and credibility.