Too few chiefs

We usually see our bosses in either a good or a bad light. But we still rarely end up taking on their duties ourselves

Flocking birds are quite unaware of how much they outperform people. And this is not just in terms of soaring freely through the air. A V-formation is governed by other laws than those of packs of wolves or homo sapiens: it knows no hierarchy and is not directed by alpha birds. It is led by everyone to a certain extent, each taking the lead when such a need arises. Self-organisation is the key to its success. It works a little bit like road traffic in the most overpopulated Asian cities. Provided they are familiar with local laws and customs (and deviations from them), the motorists cope just as well with traffic lights as without them. Even at incredibly busy junctions. This approach towards management, completely free of despotic and egoistic thinking, has been trying to find its way into business for some time now, with better or worse results. However, the world of the corporate ladder has somehow still not been shaken to its foundations.

Perhaps it pays off to have a boss. Someone who supervises, represents, mediates and eventually decides? And who often gets stressed at night about all of this? I’ve asked architects, urban planners, constructors and agents about this topic. All these industries are basically highly traumatic team sports, where either an overgrown ego or the herd instinct can do much harm. What does a boss bring to the business? This is where the big words start: responsibility, fairness, trust, respect, transparency, control, knowing a firm’s needs. Great. Only why are we incapable of taking on these roles ourselves?

There are many examples of smart urban self-organisation taking place in both Western and Eastern cities. From Philadelphia, to Amsterdam, to Seoul, people are engaging in setting up companies that utilise the sharing of private goods, neighbourhood bicycle rentals, nursery schools, playgrounds, and so on. They just do it. Without any great fuss or looking for the state to help out. Somebody makes an unused roof of a building available to someone, somebody else plants a vegetable garden on it and then supplies half the street with fresh vegetables at fair prices – a collective effort that contributes to a healthier and easier lifestyle. This is what experts on local community cooperation call it. When asked how such activities can be supported from the municipality side, they all respond wryly: We need a fishing rod. Not a fish.

But what could actually lead us to reject the established top-down organisation, admit that ‘it just does not work’ and start managing ourselves? Could it be the rebel instinct? Emotions? Inborn entrepreneurship? Or perhaps our culture and education? I am now thinking about High Line, one of the most popular and visited parks and promenades in New York. The idea to transform over 2 km of an increasingly dilapidated former railway overpass into a remarkable example of green architecture, was purely a local residents’ initiative. They found a place where they could take a breather: ‘their’ piece of land. They decided not to demolish it, in spite of the attempts of the owners of plots located under the viaduct. Suffocated by concrete, they simply planted greenery between the rusty railway tracks off their own bat, looking after what they ‘had’. Only later did the High Line activists formally set up an association and eventually obtain the full consent and support of the city, which now prides itself on the park’s repurposing, its charm and its size. Oh, and the prices of the plots in the neighbourhood have skyrocketed in the meantime.

Scientists (not just American ones, and not necessarily on the basis of the latest research) have found that what makes a bad boss is having bad superiors in the past. But they also add that it is possible to escape the toxic legacy of the bosses of our bosses.