holding the space

There is an aspect of leadership that gets little attention in the popular management press. It is about holding space. Holding space means protecting the boundaries so that people can work. Nations hold their space through laws, treaties, and armed forces. Organizational leaders need to hold their space so that people can work. I do not mean controlling place, just holding it.

Frederic Laloux describes this in his book, Reinventing Organizations. The key role of a CEO is in holding the space so that teams can self-manage. If democratic workplaces are the best organizational structure for the network era, then keeping the space for democracy is the primary role for the leadership. In America, the democratic space was designed to be kept by the three branches of government – legislative, judiciary, executive – and protected by a written constitution. When this space is not protected, democracy loses. In constitutional monarchies, space can be protected by the monarch, who has little power other than to hold the space of democracy. When the Crown loses power, democracy can suffer the tyranny of the majority.

Ricardo Semler, who has created one of the most democratic companies in the world, described this in a recent talk. Even though Semler has not been voted to be CEO for over 10 years, as founder and owner, he still has a role in keeping the space.

“Slowly we went to a process where we’d say things like, we don’t want anyone to be a leader in the company if they haven’t been interviewed and approved by their future subordinates. Every six months, everyone gets evaluated, anonymously, as a leader. And this determines whether they should continue in that leadership position, which is many times situational, as you know. And so if they don’t have 70, 80 percent of a grade, they don’t stay, which is probably the reason why I haven’t been CEO for more than 10 years.”

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