Effective Leadership – There Is No Workaround

Hi there. I have taken some time off writing. I thought maybe it was a dry spell because I couldn’t seem to take a thought on a logical journey to a conclusion. I started wondering if it might be because I am struggling to find truth these days.  Or maybe there are just too many opinions, ideas, thoughts and yes, truths, that trying to provoke thought through writing (as I said is my intention) is becoming unrewarding.

Then an article caught my eye. How a Radical Shift Left Zappos Reeling describes the chaos that ensued with CEO Tony Hsieh’s move to holacracy. The concept of leadless organizations just really needs some exploration. I can do that!

Zappo’s story

The article tells the story of Hsieh’s awakening in 2012, when a speaker at the Conscious Capitalism conference he attended, talked about “the messiness of human interaction” and asked “What it there’s another way to organize,“ one that doesn’t rely on bosses, politics, and power?” Hsieh was intrigued, contacted the speaker, bought his software (that supports “holacracy”) and reorganized. Departments are replaced by work circles, and bosses by “lead links.” Employees move to circles to do work that excites them, and there is no one in authority to tell them no.

There were a couple tidbits in the article that I had to ponder.

  • People are paid based on earning badges, like in the girl scouts.
  • There is an infrastructure of points that are allocated by an employee to various circles in which they work. They chose where they want to work.
  • Lead links have to approve the employee working in the circle

So, if I really read into this, I draw the conclusion that Zappos made two distinct changes: first, they created a new infrastructure with new rules. More importantly, they changed the style of leadership from command to influence.

There is no workaround for leadership

But the real power of the story, at least to me, is that there is no workaround for leadership. Think about what happened at Zappos.  One individual who had the power to make a humongous organizational change stepped out and made it happen. Should Tony Hsieh leave, would holacracy survive?  Without his passion, vision, and accountability, I think it would be difficult.

To me, the very existence of Zappo’s holacracy experience is a testament to strong, visionary leadership and a lesson for anyone leading change.

When asked what he would do differently, he said he would have moved faster; pulled off the band-aid right away rather than introduce the change slowly. The chaos caused by those who couldn’t accept the change impacted everyone and the business.


That is a powerful lesson in accountability. His leadership required that everyone get on board and share the passion and vision of this new way of working. It wasn’t okay to opt out. After observing the impact of those who were not on board, he caringly let them find someplace where they felt more at home. We don’t usually have the funding to take care of them so monetarily, but it has been my experience that people know when they don’t “fit” and when they hang on, it becomes toxic to others.

Being on board becomes a core value that must be shared, and it falls to the leader to cut the ties when it is not.

How a leader does it is style…autocratic or caring, or somewhere in between.  But the leader must take action. It’s his job.

Passionate Vision

How can you hold someone accountable unless they know what’s expected? You can’t. An effective leader has to be so explicit, so clear and so excited that others get excited too. Or don’t.

Hsieh wanted the Zappo’s employees to want to be there, to love their work, and to take responsibility for their own actions. He created a values statement that left no doubt. You love what they want to become, or you resist. And when there are resisters, they sap the time and energy of leaders throughout the organization. By providing a workforce with shared values, Hsieh changed the role of leaders from spending all their time dealing with the 20% not on board, to focusing on motivating the 80% who really want to progress.

Leaderless? Not Really

From my vantage point, I would say that Tony Hsieh has been a leader, and has rewritten the role of leadership at Zappos. But I wouldn’t call Zappos a leaderless organization.  I sure wouldn’t.

Will their model thrive? We’ll see. But in the meantime, we can take away some lessons.


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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  1. While I have always been uncomfortable with the word Leadership and prefer to mentor, to guide , to teach and influence I acknowledge that sometimes you are the only thing in the way of a fast moving train and you have to step up and pull the switch.

    • Love the analogy, Larry, and thanks for the comment. While I have also shied away from the traditional concept of leadership, I came around to the fact that the term is a good term, but the traditional role is not right today. But without the concept of a leader holding folks accountable, all the mentoring in the world may be for naught.

    • Thanks for your comment, Chris. That’s so true – leadership is not a role or title, but a way of stepping up….