Learning from History to Design Your Style of Leadership

As I mentioned in my Leadership vs Management article, I am exploring leadership and management styles. I want to know what makes for inspiring and effective leadership. I also want to know why some managers are so hard to work with, even though they might be great to go out with for a drink!

This is part 2 of the essay and focuses on “why we need organizations” after all. In this article we’ll take a look at:

  • What made our species survive
  • What made us develop groups, tribes, and organizations
  • How organizations evolved
  • Where we are now in terms of organizational evolution
History of Organizations

Before we jump into why we need organizations and leadership, let's take a quick walk into where we came from and why our genus Homo Sapiens succeeded.

Warning: This article is not for those who believe in Young Earth creationism; dinosaur bones are older than 10,000 years, people!

The sapiens species is thought to have emerged around 300,000-200,000 years ago. Our species, homo sapiens, became anatomically recognizable roughly 50,000-30,000 ya, when the species developed the capacity for language.

There are several theories for why H. sapiens succeeded but not other members of the genus such as Neanderthal and Denisovan neanderthals: Violence from modern humans, diseases, competitive exclusion, inbreeding, climate change, or a combination of these factors and more. The theory that relates to this article is brain power. Neanderthals had brawn, but humans had the advantage in brains. Our H. sapiens brains were built to support more complex functions such as creativity, communication, and imagination. The ability to believe myth and fiction, and the ability to pass along stories may have been our ancestors biggest advantage.

The oldest known figurative painting, a depiction of an unknown bovine was discovered in the Lubang Jeriji Saléh cave, dated around 40,000 years ago. source
Cave lion drawings from Chauvet Cave, Ardèche, France (c. 35,000 to 30,000 years old) source

Myth and religion are great examples of the creative mind in our species. We are capable of believing in the supernatural, something unseen in any other species on Earth. Our creative mind allows us to believe in extraordinary things like a God with unlimited power, kind enough to tolerate all the suffering in the world, and ready to administer harsh punishment upon you for your sins in an eternal afterlife! Or so some stories go. We love to gossip and we love to tell stories. We have communicated those beliefs and have created communities around them. Religion made us form tribes, worship gods, and work together to make the gods happy and satisfied. Some religions told of an afterlife, a Heaven and Hell, and one should do good things to enter the Good Place and pray to be protected from the Bad Place and all its minions.

And the lord stood upon Tiamat's hinder parts,
And with his merciless club he smashed her skull.
He cut through the channels of her blood,
And he made the North wind bear it away into secret places.
Tiamat - source

Humans are also social animals. But what is socialization? Is there a limit to how many interactions we can handle?

Being social, forming strong and weak ties with others and being able to work together in groups as well as alone, supports the evolution of the species. Apologies to all of you introverts, including myself, who like to spend time alone...we can't all be alone all the time! Look at it this way: If a family stayed together, children had a better chance of surviving. Larger families and tribes could also better defend themselves against intruders, or care for one another in times of sickness or disaster. They would help each other with their youngsters, share food, and build homes. Travel was dangerous, so we stayed close to natural resources, and guarded them. And so we formed teams and tribes.

What about those who do want to stay alone? If one has to only answer to themselves and can do whatever they want, we don't say they're in a team or an organization.

What happens when we add a second person? Now we have a team because we have relationships. The moment we add a second person, we have a relationship that can evolve over time...team dynamics. It's a small team, but it is at last a team. A decision made by one person has to be communicated and understood by the second. But, hey, there's only a single "one-on-one" meeting on the calendar.

As the team grows, the number of relationships (and the number of possible one-on-one meetings that can take place) increases much more quickly than the number of people. With 4 people, we have 6 relationships. With 8 people, 28. With 20, it's 190! In general, it's (n*(n-1)/2) possible direct relationships among n people.

Now let's come a few hundred thousand years forward to the present. The growth of our societies, families, companies, and teams raises the question, "What team size is the right size?".

If you cannot feed a team with two pizzas, it's too large.
-- Jeff Bezos
Team of one
With this in mind, let's define relationship as knowing well who each person is and how are they related to others. Even though human are social, there's limit to our social skills which we can have a meaningful, stable and cohesive relationship with others. The real number falls somewhere between 100 to 250, commonly 150. This formula was first proposed in the 1990's by the anthropologist Robin Dunbar who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size.

Dunbar suggests that a number larger than this requires restrictions, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable and cohesive group. In other words, our brain struggles to make and maintain meaningful and stable relationships when the number is greater than Dunbar's number. That may be why we often don't trust strangers, why we experience urban isolation, and why we form groups, tribes, organizations, and governments. These smaller groups need to collaborate to achieve outcomes too large for any one group.

Now that we know we are social animals and there's a limit in how many meaningful relationships our brain can handle, let's look at how organizations formed and where are we at now!

Organization Structure

We've evolved from small groups of families to survive to today's mega cities and global civilization. We went from staying together in group of dozens just to have our species survive, to being able to understand biology and actually manipulate our genes. But, we couldn't have came so far if we had stayed in our small family circle or tribes. Forming bigger groups and organizations allowed us to shift our attention from survival to understanding the world around us.

The book "Reinventing Organizations" charts the evolution of organizations as the following:

  • Reactive Infrared - 100,000 to 50,000 BC: Small Family
  • Magic-Magenta - 15,000 years ago: Tribes
  • Impulsive Red - 10,000 BC
  • Conformist Amber - 4,000 BC
  • Achievement Orange
  • Pluralistic Green
  • Evolutionary Teal

Let's explore this.

Reactive Infrared - 100,000 to 50,000 BC

The Infrared era mainly consist of foragers. These small groups of family didn't compete due to their egos. Males were supposed to hunt and females would take care of children. Their shared goal was survival.

Metaphor: Simple human
Example: Small family
Group size: In dozens
  • No ego
  • Don't perceive themselves as distinct
  • Simple separation of responsibility
  • No chief
Magic-Magenta - 15,000 years ago

Organizations don't exist at this stage, yet. However, tribes of few hundred started forming. Elders had special status because of their experience and knowledge: In a time with no form of writing, elders served as walking libraries. Humanity shifted to a stage of consciousness, however, cause and effect were poorly understood. A rise in belief in magic happened as a way to explain the unknown.

Example: Tribes
Group size: Few hundreds
Leader: Elders
  • Curiosity
  • Believe in Magic
Year one
Impulsive Red - 10,000 BC
Some time around 10,000 years ago leaders started ruling by force and fear. The group size had grown well above Dunbar's number. The tribes believed that they have to use control to defend themselves. Egos started to form with hierarchy, and individuals had a sense of self that separated them from others. Tribes gained experience with organized agriculture, which formed the basis of stable civilizations.
We still see examples of Impulsive Red in today's era in the form of wars, gangs, and the Mafia.

Metaphor: Wolf pack
Example: Gang
Group size: Well above 150
Leader: Overwhelming powerful chief
  • Chief's use of dominating power
  • No hierarchy
  • No job title
  • Rule by fear and submission
Principals / Strategies:
  • Power
  • Manipulation
  • Submission
  • Well adapted to chaotic environment
  • Complex environment
  • Separation of planning and execution
  • Trust
  • Other people's feelings
  • Scalability
Conformist Amber - 4,000 BC

Around 4,000 B.C., humanity had shifted to a state of agriculture, civilization, and institutions. The first writing systems began to emerge. Jumping forward to today, a large share of the world's population in developed countries still operates with this paradigm.
Examples of amber organizations today include the military in peacetime, government agencies, public schools, and religious institutions.

Metaphor: Army
Example: Religion institutions
Leader: Boss
  • Roles instead of absolute power
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Laws and punishments according to a system of justice, not personal whim of a ruler
  • Understanding of cause and effect
  • Ability to make decisions quickly in the face of uncertainty
  • Medium to long-term planning
  • Understanding of others feelings
  • Stability
  • Scalability
  • Complexity
Achievement Orange

Within the past couple of centuries, humankind has evolved far beyond absolute right or wrong. We started to understand and handle greater complexity. This period saw the Industrial Revolution. We understood machines and as a result, started making our organizations mimic machines. If you look closely at most leaders in business and politics worldwide, you see they are operating in achievement orange organizations. Other examples of this group are corporations such as Walmart and Coca-Cola.

Achievement orange organizations' effectiveness is through innovation, accountability, and meritocracy.
This is the time that organizations started having research and development, marketing, and product management departments. The traditional Command and Control is now shifted to Predict and Control. Managers set achievement target for their employees and those who reach their target are getting rewarded by being promoted or getting a salary raise or bonus.

Metaphor: Machine
Example: Corporations
Leader: Boss/managers
  • The better I understand the way the world operates, the more I can achieve!
  • The best decision is the one that begets the highest outcome
  • Innovation
  • Accountability
  • Meritocracy
  • Ego
  • Trust
  • Material
  • Promotions
Pluralistic Green

Pluralistic green organizations are still relatively new, forming in the current century while orange is still dominant in politics and businesses. The break though here is empowerment! The organizations still operate in a hierarchy, but managers push through majority voting and are expected to share power. Examples of green organizations are academia, non-profits, social work, and community activism. Some organizations who are also early adopters of pluralistic green are Southwest Airlines and Ben and Jerry's.
Another noticeable change in pluralistic green organizations is that management style has shifted from being a boss to a servant leader. This modesty is a result of understanding and respecting other people's feelings. Not only are managers expected to be respectful and open-minded, green organizations also invest in soft-skill training for their employees.
Green organizations practice 360-degree reviews, meaning not only managers review their employees, employees also get to review their managers and provide feedback and improvements.
Culture and values are defined and important. Southwest Airlines believes in Freedom; while Ben and Jerry's pride themselves for caring about Environment.
The downside of green organizations is that even though they pride themselves as being open-minded and tolerant, they are intolerant of those who don't fit their culture!

Metaphor: Family
Example: Southwest Airlines
Leader: Modest behavior manager / leader
  • Empowerment
  • Values-driven culture
  • Stakeholder model
  • Abolition of slavery
  • Women's liberation
  • Separation of church and state
  • Freedom of religion
  • Democracy
  • Relationship above outcome
  • Trust
  • Intolerant of abuse of power
  • Intolerant of intolerance
  • Intolerant of those who don't fit in their "culture"
  • Practical alternatives
Evolutionary Teal

There is an evolution in consciousness, that there is a momentum in evolution towards ever more complex and refined ways of dealing with the world. In this stage, we are now well aware of complexity. Instead of either-or there is both-and. We must combine and process information in a new way that dis-identify from our own ego.

We can summarize different organizations that exist today's principals as:
Red: Get me what I want
Amber: Social norms (right and wrong)
Orange: Effectiveness and success
Green: Harmony
Teal: Rightness, am I being true to myself, pursue life well-lived

As the name implies, teal organizations have an evolutionary purpose. Instead of looking at 5 years ahead and plan for the year, they look 20 years ahead and plan for tomorrow. In order to achieve their goal, creating smarter groups is essential. These groups focus on increasing in emotional intelligence and therefore increasing performance. By giving people authority and trusting them, creativity and innovation is unleashed and therefore employee satisfaction is improved.

Metaphor: Living Organism
Example: Morning Star
Leader: ?
  • Evolutionary purpose
  • Wholeness
  • Self-management
  • Adaptive to complex environment
  • Satisfaction
  • Trust
Struggle: ?
Reward: Life well-lived!
Thoughts on Green and Teal organizations
  • What does "culture" mean?
  • How do we define culture within an organization?
  • What does it mean to "fit in culture"?

When we talk about "fitting in a culture", to me, it sounds like we need to look back. Reactive Infrared to Achievement Orange organizations defined a set of characteristics that was important and relevant to them and formed teams that fit those criteria. The main characteristics of the Green and Teal organizations, however, are openness, acceptance, democracy, trust, and adaptation. Given those characteristics:

  • Does it make sense, in green organization or teal, to set a culture?
  • What about those with different ideas or different set of skills who won't "fit" in the culture that was defined, but can add to it?
  • How do we set a culture that's changing all the time, for the better?
I don't have the answers to these questions. Whatever I can think of, it seems the next great candidate for the organization might break it! When it comes to teal organizations, I still have my doubts. Working with a group of very young and skilled team members, I do see how the work styles differ with those who are a generation before me. New generations passionately consider the "bigger" life mission. But would we ever get to a place that we can all trust each other to pull our own weight? The promises that Evolutionary Teal organization makes reminds me of Socialism and I cannot help but wonder if we, the human species, are able to make that work.

So far, we looked into the history of groups and organizations. We understood why we're social and why forming teams was essential to our survival. As Dunbar suggests as our teams and organizations got bigger the need for leaders grow; not only just a leader, but also the leadership style. In a modern society, a company who wants to run their organization like an impulsive red is not going to survive. Meanwhile, military cannot operate in pluralistic green or evolutionary teal, especially during war!

In order for us to determine what type of organization we have or want, and how our leaders should operate, we need to take a look at some leadership styles. We have to decide what organization we want before we have a shanty town. Who sets the goal and the vision and what are we here to achieve?

Across all these styles, a strong leader not only is setting a long term vision on how life is going to be tomorrow, in 5, 10, 20 years from now, they make sure that the employees are well-aware of the goals and empowers them to get there. Setting goals is an expectation for leaders but it's equally important to understand how does a leader handle disagreement and intolerance.

  • Is the plan to prison the person who made a mistake or cast them out, because if everyone is agreeable then leadership is easy?
  • What if there's diversity? How do we define diversity?
  • Are we considering inclusion in addition to diversity?
  • What's someone's perspective of someone else's viewpoint?
  • How do we deal with disagreement?

Let's consider a mid-size IT consultancies where team's majority consist of engineers and designers (depending on the project size, you might have a project/product owner or business analysts). The consultants travel often or stay on their project usually for a few months before they rotate. In this case:

  • What's the ideal leadership look like?
  • Who should the members of the team report to?
  • What are the characteristics of the leader(s)?
  • Should each team have their own leader who's going to ultimately run reviews and help members with their career path, or should they report to some one outside of the team like CTO or Dev Managers?
  • If they leader/manager is outside of their project's team, then how does that leader/manager have accurate information to evaluate the employee?
  • If they report to a lead/manager in their team's project, what happens when the employee changes his/her project?

These are all the questions you (someone who's in charge of an organization, or you as an engineer/designer/new leader) should ask, what's the best setup in an organization you want to be a part of?

I have been thinking about this for a long time. Even though I am well aware that one setup doesn't apply to all, in an IT organization, I would love to try a flat organization in which the members of the team (regardless of your title as engineer, designer, business analyst ...) report to the Team's Lead. The lead is the person who sets the direction and can define success or failure and can carry the vision. This person can help you set goals within the project and can answer your questions regarding the end goal. The leader, however, doesn't necessarily care about what technology you are using or the details of how each feature was executed, as long as the "goal" is met.
When it comes to specific technology, on the other hand, I would like to see different learning groups within the organization. The lead of that learning team has great and deep knowledge of the technology. He/she can give you technical support or guide you to documents, resources outside of the organization to help you succeed.
Lastly, there should be a person you can always reach for HR questions, vacations, policies, and salary conversations. Having clear metrics is crucial in this case so that when it comes to your salary discussion there will be no doubt about what you have brought to the table and how much you grew for the past X months.

My ideal team includes:

  • A strong inspirational leader to has a great vision and ability to form a group who moves towards that vision
  • A manager who I can refer to for typical company policy stuff, request PTO, attend conference, talk about my goals and improvements
  • Strong technical people who are genuinely happy to share knowledge and help building a stronger technical team. Those who want others around them to be as good or even better and are not holding knowledge so that they are the most senior (in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king)
  • A group of young and open-minded juniors who are ready to take the world by storm, but are humble enough to not build a box around themselves so they can learn how to do it

What team do you want to be a part of?

  • References of Skin in the game
  • Nassim Taleb - lone wolf
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
  • Reinventing Organizations, by Fredric Laloux and Ken Wilber
  • Wikipedia
  • Various management articles online