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A Company of Citizens: What the World's First Democracy Teaches Leaders About Creating Great Organizations

4.6 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 000-1578514401
ISBN-10: 1578514401
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Editorial Reviews

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.

About the Author

Brook Manville is Chief Learning Office and Chief Customer Evangelist at Saba, a firm that delivers human capital development and management solutions. Josiah Ober is Chair of the Department of Classics and David Magie '97 Class of 1897 Professor of Ancient History at Princeton University. He teaches courses on participatory democracy and postmodern organizations; and on the politics of learning in Ancient Athens.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press (February 12, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1578514401
  • ISBN-13: 978-1578514403
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 0.9 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #783,317 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Ancient Greeks bear gifts to management.
By RICHARD DONKIN.
1,073 words
27 February 2003
Financial Times
16
English
(c) 2003 Financial Times Limited. All Rights Reserved
The authors of a new book argue that the ordered society of Pericles' Athens offers transferable models of organisation for the modern company.
There is a memorable scene in the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, where a group of Jewish resistance fighters asks: "What did the Romans do for us?" before producing an ever-growing list of achievements. It is just as well that the Python team did not include the Greeks or the scene would have run and run.
Ancient Greece has so much to offer that it is perhaps surprising that the management book-publishing industry has taken its time to evaluate the Greek city state for ideas that may be applied in the modern company. It is not as if business publishers have been coy about historical studies. We need only look at the exhaustive examinations of the methods of Sun Tzu, the fourth-century BC Chinese general, and Niccolo` Machiavelli, the Florentine Renaissance politician.
The interest in both is understandable, since they had much to say about the dark arts of manipulation and strategy, perceived for so long to be instructive for bosses who wanted to be sure of their power base.
But what could the city state of ancient Athens with its democratic traditions have to offer the autocratically run company?
The authors of a new book* believe the time has come for greater democracy and citizenship in the workplace. They argue that the ordered society of ancient Athens - what they describe as the world's first "company of citizens" - offers transferable models of organisation for the modern company.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A Company of Citizens is concerned with two themes. First, "workers in today's Knowledge Age," mindful of their contributions and responsibilities, increasingly expect to become full citizens of their organizations with rights to self-govern and to develop practices of cooperation. Secondly, the Greek city-state of Athens in the fourth and fifth century B.C. is presented as the most significant example of a large organization/society that operated as a thoroughgoing democracy, and, as such, is suggested by the authors as the best practical model for modern firms desirous of a transformation to democracy. But the connection between the democracy of Athens which existed primarily at the level of the state and participatory democracy in modern, private enterprises is hardly straightforward. The authors contend that reality for today's employees is one of being forced to "check their values and sense of purpose" at the door to their firms, much to the detriment of the firms.
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.
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Format: Hardcover
History was never my favorite subject so I was a little leery of how much I might appreciate from a book about ancient Athens. How wonderful to find refreshing insights and practical teachings page after page! The authors use Athens as more of an illuminating example or clever case-study than a mantra for what modern managers should do now. They address both historical challenges and modern day dilemmas to get at the heart of how to build community while supporting individuality at the same time. Through stories that could almost seem ripped from today's headlines, they show refreshing ways of working together, learning from one another, and networking for the good of a geographic or business community. I was especially impressed with chapter 5, Practicing Citizenship, because it offered a series of Athenian practices that (as the authors said) "embody the combination of 'doing' and 'learning'--things that modern managers still tend to keep in separate jars." In my work, helping people and organizations discovery alternative ways to learn and work together, I'm sure to surprise people with some fresh approaches that are anything but new.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is based on the premise that Classical Athens was the world's first democracy and it has something to teach leaders about creating great organizations. The product description paraphrases the authors' argument, "that ancient Athenian democracy was an ingenious solution to organizing human capital through the practice of citizenship." Indeed, Athenian innovations in government continue to have influence in today's civilizations.

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.
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