Liberating Leadership, intrinsic equality and world-class businesses

Many thanks to @flapinta for pointing this one to me (french link). What a revelation !

Isaac Getz is is a professor of Idea, Involvement, and Innovation Management at ESCP Europe. He has been Visiting Professor at Cornell University, Stanford University and at the University of Massachusetts. He graduated in Computer Science, then obtained a M.Sc. in Management Science, a Doctorate in Psychology and a post-doctoral degree (HDR) in Management.

I usually don’t spend too much time providing information on the business thinkers I quote, but considering the content, I just wanted to make sure Isaac Getz is not mistaken with some kind of hippie smoking ganja on a beach in Goa.

With Liberating Leadership : How the initiative-Freeing Radical Organization Form Has Been Successfully Adopted (pdf) Isaac Getz received the accolade of French Management Union of engineers (SYNTEC) with the Academic Prize of Management (french link again).

This 26 pages essay provides us with further evidence that methods of management that arose in the 50s (Chris Argyris and Douglas McGregor), have been successfully applied by dozens of world class companies and market leaders in their area (Toyota, Southwest Airlines, USAA, Avis, WLGore, QuadGraphics, FAVI in France etc …) to foster employees engagement. The amazing thing is how they align with the management principles that are consubstantial to Enterprise 2.0.

In a time where leadership has never been so critical for businesses, some lessons to remember from this essay :

The key to F-Form organisations

Chris Argyris and Douglas McGregor researches converge in the 50s to the conclusion that traditional organization forms (organisation silos, command and control type of management) lead to failure.

In the 90s many companies such as Southwest Airlines or Toyota illustrated successfully Argyris and McGregor preferred organisation type : what Getz calls the F-form. In F-form organisations, employees have complete freedom and responsibility to take actions that they (not their bosses) decide is best.

Getz decided to study these companies to answer this obvious question : how come this type of organisation, yielding impressive economic results, have not been more generally adopted throughout the business world ?

What he found out : there is a common factor in all the companies where F-form of organisation prevail : liberating leadership. Enterprise without this type of leadership just can’t adopt this type of organisation.

All studied leaders understand the defining function of the organizational form they were building, to allow complete freedom and responsibility of employee’s action.

Nourishing people three universal needs

McGregor redefined the How to motivate people ? conundrum into a “How to build an environment where people self motivate themselves“.

Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan studied organisations and proposed a self-determination (wikipedia)  and work motivation (pdf) theory. This identifies a framework of non controlling  environmental factors required  for self-motivation : relatedness, competence and autonomy.

Beyond these environmental factors, they identified three universal needs that, once fulfilled,  lead to self motivation :

  1. need of being treated intrinsically equal,
  2. need of growth
  3. need of self-direction.

Creating an environment for intrinsic equality

Robert Townsend (CEO of Avis) published the Up the organisation best seller in 1967. Motto : once you’re in charge, remove everything you didn’t like as a subordinate and implement what you missed.

Robert was an admirer of Management Theory Y by Douglas McGregor. Alike other liberating leaders, he proceeds in what could seem to be an empirical fashion, adopting work practices that help treating people intrinsically equals and removing the ones that  does not.

Principle thoroughly adopted for instance by Cristobal Conde, CEO of SunGard :

How do people get recognized? How do you establish a meritocracy in a highly dispersed environment? The answer is to allow employees to develop a name for themselves that is irrespective of their organizational ranking or where they sit in the org chart

It’s all about listening

This is a very strong and common trait of liberating leaders : stop controlling and start listening. There are some telling examples in Isaac Getz essay but the most impressive I know of probably is Paul Chambers CEO of Cisco (though not in the essay) :

I had to move from a command-and-control leader to a collaborative one.” Collaborative leadership means “letting go” by involving others in decision making, listening to ideas.

The are good reasons behind the listening key. Jeff Westphal CEO of Vertex provides the Wisdom of Crowds one in Getz’s essay. But the main one is that when people genuinely are listened to, they feel intrinsically equal.

Creating an environment for people to grow and self direct

With all the studied companies and organisations, Getz’s team has witnessed a strong focus on making sure the company encourage self-direction. Among other examples, the essay explains how USAA (insurance company) does not measure the performance of the call center on the number of calls handled per hours but on the number of customer problems solved during the first call.

What really is interesting here is that the company provides the guidance (take care of the customers by fixing its problem in one call) rather than the control (count the number of calls addressed by employee). This did not prevent USAA to top Business Week 2007 and 2008 (2nd in 2009) customer service ranking US wide.

Fostering culture-keepers

Another common principle with liberating leaders : they are the culture keepers. There is a strong will to foster this. We live the culture (Terri Kelly CEO of WLGore – link to her video).

And there is a will just as strong to make sure nothing can damage it. Getz gives the example of FAVI, an amazing french company building brass gear forks auto parts. This company has experienced a 3 decade long double digit free cash flow and solid margins, moving from 0 to 50% of market share in an industry where its European competitors are, at best, at a loss, and in most cases has disappeared.

In the 25 years of the company, Jean François Zolbrist (great french blog post by @pmeance including a video of JFZ explaining FAVI principles) didn’t dismiss people whose job became useless. But he did promptly fire 3 people for malfeasance as they were not treating people intrinsically equals.

This brings us back to how Brad Bird protects innovation in Pixar by getting rid of passive-agressive people.

Main values

All the leaders of the studies company share the same values :

  1. Freedom and responsibility values. As Bil Gore said : “Freedom is is the great motivating power of individual human beings”.
  2. Creativity : A survey from IBM’s Institute for Business Value shows that CEOs value one leadership competency above all other : creativity. One of the observed main feature of their creativity, is the ability to rephrase problems to find solutions more easily.
  3. Wisdom : The ability to contextualise and the reluctance to fundamentally attribute errors to individuals

Be nice

Last remarkable trait of Liberating leaders, they make sure their F-Form organisation are considerate not only with their employees but also with their suppliers, customers and partners.

This brings us back (again !) to E. Goldratt definition of any company goals : be profitable, take care of the customers and take care of the employees.

By doing so, the F-Form companies develop trustful long term relationships.

A remarkable essay which sheds a great light on the “mysteries” of many successful and exemplary companies. It perfectly complements Gary Hamel best seller The Future of Management.

Now the questions : have you witnessed such type of leadership ? Have you experienced it ? How to implement such type of leadership in an organisation ? (My hint : it starts with E and finishes with 2.0). Let us know.


  1. I am afraid the essay proposed by Isaac Getz is not a good piece of news. If the success of this approach is linked to an exceptional breed of leaders, we can wonder if coming age will ever change anything where 50 years of successful experiment inside dozens of companies have not.

    We face a deep problem more likely rooted in our archaic origins as great apes fighting for domination than in a lack of efficient collaborative tools based on Web 2.0.

    Be sure ! The whole current system is organized to elect leaders based on their “command & control” capability since at least the Old testament.

  2. I guess it’s not a matter of good will, it’s a matter of survival.

    I strongly believe that in an interconnected world, homo testosteronus won’t survive while homo collaborativus will.

    This really brings us back to the Future of Management by Gary Hamel.

    I guess it’s even more difficult in such a culture as French one (which is VERY hierarchical) to understand, but my bet is that we won’t have any choice : collaborate and trust or die.

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