The ironies of small business and democracy

One of the great ironies is that while businesses flourish in a democracy, a business cannot flourish as a democracy.

By definition, stakeholders in a democracy vote on issues and the majority rules. But while this process is one of the greatest inventions of mankind with many applications, business is not one of them.

Pure democracy isn’t practical in government, either. But a group of visionary malcontents solved that problem over 200 years ago by creating something new: a constitutional republic, where an elected few represent the interests of all.

A business can be like a dictatorship in that an individual will likely make the final decision. One desk, as President Truman so famously said, where the proverbial buck stops. But here’s another irony: Even though a business may have characteristics of a dictatorship, it likely won’t be successful if the team is managed by a tyrant. The dominator management model is as old as humanity itself, but it requires subordinates to dutifully follow the instructions of superiors. As a withering vestige of centuries past, this model is no longer competitive.

The 21st century management model must look more like a partnership. Just as effective government requires that elected representation augments pure democratic principles, an ultimate decision maker in a business must be alloyed with the experience, brainpower and engagement of the team.

The Founders envisioned a nation that could be as dynamic as it was enduring, and as powerful as it was benevolent, but only if the stakeholders believed their investment in such an ideal was justified. Our republic — warts and all — essentially does this. And even though Americans outsource the management of their government, the classic principles of democracy come to bear with regularly scheduled elections to see if the majority wants to change its mind.

Employees change their minds by seeking work elsewhere. And while they always had the right to leave a job that’s managed by tyrants, past generations swallowed their pride in favor of what we now know was the illusion of job security.

Today, employees have no such illusions. And while they accept the reality that someone has to make final decisions, they also expect to contribute to the basis for those decisions.

In the 21st century, a business still can’t be structured as a democracy or dictatorship. Today employees expect to be led, not driven; they want to contribute, not just take orders, even if the last order wasn’t their favorite.

The 21st century workplace does not abide tyrants.

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