Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.40

Brooke Manville, Josiah Ober, A Company of Citizens: What the World's First Democracy Teaches Leaders About Creating Great Organizations.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Business School Press, 2003.  Pp. 224.  ISBN 1-57851-440-1.  $27.50.  

Reviewed by Marc Mastrangelo, Dickinson College (
Word count: 3125 words

Please forgive me if, as an American disheartened by the current direction of my country, I begin this discussion of A Company of Citizens (Manville/Ober = M/O) by expressing anxiety and perhaps even a modicum of suspicion regarding a book which merrily -- and, I might add, superbly -- assimilates the two worlds of Athenian democracy and American business. As one reads through the carefully laid out argument that Athenian democratic values and practices are ideal for today's knowledge-based, people-oriented firms, one is struck by a series of unaddressed disconnects: between the ideal firms M/O claim to be the future of American business -- non-hierarchical, knowledge-workers who have a real stake in the Company's welfare, and the persistently hierarchical, exclusionary American firms that still dominate the corporate landscape; between a democratic-capitalist ideal gone-by of raising all boats through the sensible oversight of globalism and the oligarchic reality of a system that continues to heighten the differences between the haves and the have-nots whether stateside or abroad; between democracy, a political system, that should remain just that, and the dilution of democracy's principles and institutions in the service of economic expediency.1

The authors' assumption that "business and other enterprises are becoming ever more dependent on their people ... in an era of increasing appreciation of democracy" appears more like a left-over slogan from the giddy 90's white-washed of the serious imperfections of American democracy painfully laid bare by Americans' post 9/11 acquiescence to corporate malfeasance, a beholden media, a militarist, preemptive and unilateralist foreign policy, and a set of leaders cynical enough to nurture such democratic blasphemies. This critique notwithstanding, in the book's ideal world of hotshot organizations, its argument is coherent and the use of the history of Athenian democracy nuanced and interesting. After all, the book's audience is (future) leaders of people-centered, knowledge-oriented companies who rely on the creativity of an engaged and empowered workforce. M/O claim to have successfully applied their approach to a real company and are following a trend in business toward the "Citizen Company" championed by Charles Handy in his important book The Hungry Spirit (1998).

Chapter One offers the Athenian achievement of the Parthenon as a "symbol of outstanding organizational performance," a "high-performance outcome," a structure built astonishingly in nine years under the strain of military conflict and revolts in Athens' satellite city-states. How was the talent and work of thousands of Athenians harnessed and actualized in order to complete such a project? The answer lies in Athens' "democratic values, governance structures, and participatory practices." If only modern organizations could recreate these conditions, their performance outcomes would radically improve; and more importantly, each person's potential, from the CEO to the entry-level employee, would be actualized. Work would fulfill its promise as a place where the whole person would be developed and nurtured. The cultural, military, and economic achievements of Athens serve as a case in point for what M/O see as any organization's potential to do great things. To advance this thesis the authors begin by employing an image of a glorious Athens, "an exemplar of innovation and cultural integration." Next, M/O pose a paradox for us but not for the Athenians; namely, can individuals who are entrepreneurial freedom-seekers be fashioned into a sharply focused community? The answer to this question, simply put, is yes, and the Athenian politeia is the model. Organizations must instill a deep sense of the qualities that made up the politeia, a set of citizen values, structures, and practices which, in the modern context, culminate in total participation in the life of the organization: the values of individuality, community, and moral reciprocity; structures including legislative assemblies, judicial bodies, and executive offices; and practices that translate values into action such as doing and learning from each other, and ruling and being ruled by each other. The rest of the chapter qualifies and defends the comparison between Athens and contemporary organizations, and specifically the idea that both Athenians and modern workers at the best companies are "knowledge workers." Knowledge workers, besides being highly educated, are "complex moral persons deeply committed to human values like equality and freedom." M/O recite part of the optimistic mantra of the 90's that today's worker in the "new economy" is highly educated and flexible, and demands independence in the work place. Yet how many workers fit this idea? In the America of Reagan, Clinton, and Bush, the basic profit motive is lionized, incentive-based human nature championed, and the acquisition of wealth for its own sake celebrated.2 With the increasing wealth inequality in America where "one percent of families ... have 14 percent of after tax income" (nearly double the amount from 30 years ago)3 and with all the benefits that accompany wealth, including a top flight education, knowledge workers exist, but they appear to be an increasingly small percentage of the workforce -- and in addition outsourcing and loss of high tech jobs are alarming trends. Those who are not part of the select group who enjoy high tech jobs at enlightened companies often find themselves plugged into a hierarchy where their production and cost to the company as labor are what matters most. The authors believe that the idea of politeia is appropriate for both Athenians and modern knowledge-workers: "the Greek concept of politeia combined politics with a society and economy -- a blend of themes and issues increasingly appropriate to today's knowledge workers" (p. 17). Yet today, citizenship as a set of practices directed toward the welfare and flourishing of a community and the self is arguably a fading memory of modern civic life. The practice of such an enlightened politeia remains for those with a specific type of education and material resources; and M/O are correct, this group tends to seek such values and practices in the workplace. Given that M/O's adoption of the Athenian politeia for today's knowledge-worker encompasses a small percentage of workers, in a larger sense their model does not confront a commonplace critique of American democracy that freedom, equality, and individuality for today's American citizens appear to be slogans divorced from practice. Freedom means simply consumer choice, equality often corresponds to conformity, and individuality refers to self-expression. For many Americans, the hope for economic advancement far outweighs a commitment to social or political progress for others and themselves.

Can individualist notions of personal fulfillment without an organization's loyalty to individuals be sufficient to promote the best personal efforts in service to communal (corporate) goals? Walmart, widely considered an exemplar company in business circles, furnishes a provocative example here: a company that markets itself as fostering a sense of community in its workers (just look at the magazine and TV ads!), but whose practices regarding worker compensation and health insurance, as well as its dealings with client companies display the worst of bottom line thinking. Enron, once considered a cutting edge company that recognized talent and possessed a fluid management structure, nevertheless had a hierarchical culture, evidenced by the fact that during its demise executives got rich and workers' retirement accounts were destroyed.4 Given the many cases in the news similar to Enron, including Worldcom, Adelphia, the leadership crisis at the SEC, mutual funds, etc., how can M/O's imagined sense of Athenian community be sustained in today's large work places? Or should workers believe that democracy is alive and well because these hypocrisies have been and are being exposed?

M/O write an inspiring chapter Two that focuses on three major Athenian achievements: The battles of Salamis and Naupactus, and the fourth century economic rebound after the devastating defeat at the hands of the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War. M/O's use of Salamis emphasizes that a well-oiled democracy can defeat a monarchy and spur an economic boom. The miracle of Naupactus shows knowledge workers at their best, Athenians of all ranks, from the general Phormio on down to the rowers working together under difficult conditions to produce an extraordinary result.5 It proves for M/O that democracy does not have to function according to the lowest common denominator. The fourth century rebound illustrates a change in focus for the Athenians who looked less toward empire building in their decision-making and more toward economic prosperity. The authors embellish these events with excerpts from Thucydides' Funeral Oration and the Corinthian speech on Spartan-Athenian differences in order to show that Athenian democracy promoted performance. When a democracy is aligned with performance objectives, extraordinary results follow. The important point, though, is the nature of the democracy. In M/O's Athenian style democracy, citizens participated, leaders valued honor over money, and in many crucial situations, leaders and citizens had roughly the same amount of knowledge.

The authors' historical selectivity is worth noting.6 M/O view the Athenian failure against the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War as a blip on the screen. The Sicilian Expedition is characterized as an "overambitious performance objective" (p. 33).7 For all the attention paid to the words of Pericles, M/O never mention Thucydides' evaluation of Pericles' legacy: "So, in what was nominally a democracy, power was really in the hands of the first citizen" (Thuc. 2.65). At 2.65 Thucydides portrays the Athenian demos as needing to be held in check; a body that swung from discouragement to overconfidence. And Pericles' successors served only to augment these tendencies because they "adopted methods of demagogy ... [that] led to a number of mistakes" (trans. R. Warner, Penguin). Thucydides raises the fundamental question implicit in the term "pure democracy": is it really a democracy? Do most citizens actually contribute to its success or hinder it? This type of critique of Athenian democracy complicates a straightforward application of Athenian democracy to today's companies.

In Chapter Three M/O derive the values of citizenship treated in the previous two chapters by looking at the development of Athenian democracy from events during the time of Solon and Cleisthenes. This is a very ingenious and informative treatment that generates five imperatives for today's organizations and five insights for their leaders. The story M/O tell is a compelling one. The reforms of Solon and Cleisthenes contribute to what M/O see as three necessary qualities at the core of individuality: security, equality, and freedom. Solon reformed the legal system offering unprecedented equality under the law. To enslave a citizen became illegal, and the vote was given to each citizen to make decisions concerning the welfare of the community. This political revolution was fostered by Cleisthenes, under whom the Athenians acquired the right to vote on war and peace, ostracism, generals, and capital sentences. The system of demes, council of 500, and the ten tribes produced a citizenry whose individuals acquired and shared important knowledge, and could work effectively at the local or city-state levels. This system, buttressed by Athenian values and practices, flattened out old hierarchies while maintaining an impressive degree of political and economic efficiency. Above all, M/O emphasize rivalry and competition among the Greek city-states often manifested in the threat practice of war. This constant pressure forced Athenians to create a new type of organization, "the company of citizens," to exploit the power of collective action. According to the authors this state of affairs led to the necessity of balancing individual autonomy with community responsibility and, finally, to a community in which belonging was achieved in the form of trust. Such trust allowed Athenians to build networks that functioned at home and abroad. The chapter's recommendations to today's leaders are underwritten by a long-term view of the organization that aims to build a culture of equality, freedom, and dynamism. The example of Cleisthenes illustrates that a long period of time, stability, and good fortune is required to follow "revolution with evolution."

Chapter Four adds to M/O's argument that the Athenian company of citizens presents a feasible model for today's organizations to achieve success. While engaging in an approach that glorifies the Athenians (e.g., the court system, the Battle of Salamis), M/O also seriously entertain a critique of the contemporary corporate environment: "We suffer today from such thin and deracinated concepts of citizenship, governance, and community that it may be difficult to make the conceptual leap necessary to translate the vivid political passions of the ancient city-state to the bottom-line concerns of a modern business firm" (p. 116, see also pp. 86, 95, 96, 97). The chapter nicely lays out a well-functioning polis-like organization, by addressing a triadic superstructure of values (individuality, community, moral reciprocity), its structures (decision-making, judgment, and execution), and practices (Chapter Five). M/O's central example, the naval battle of Salamis, functions as a model for today's successful organization. But there are limitations. Are the pressures and motivations associated with Salamis applicable to those of a modern company?

Chapter Five lists ten practices of participatory citizenship that leaders can integrate as part of their organizations. These are divided into practices of access, process, and consequence. Of the first group, "engagement" captures the issue of individual motivation by managing the contradictions between individual interests and duty to the community. M/O refer to the management of the individual/community contradiction as "both/and thinking," which allows one both to have strong values and be open to change; both to have a concern for others and one's own performance. Such thinking compels individuals to believe that their life is more meaningful through doing what is necessary for the organization. One's role in the company becomes a cornerstone of the self. Two more practices of access, "networking human networks" and "rotation," situate the individual within a web of relationships whose hierarchical givens are in reciprocal flux. In a progressive organization, the "practices of consequence," that is "meritocracy," "accountability," and "challenge," allow results to be judged and decision-making to be improved. M/O believe that "merit" (pp. 135-37) "coupled with the commitment to equality promotes the rise and development of excellence" (p. 136). But balancing "merit" with "equality" is difficult because it requires that individuals see no conflict between equality of opportunity and differential reward. And even more importantly, individuals must have a deep belief that there is equal opportunity and that rewards are fair.

The chapter ends with an inspiring picture of Socrates as the archetypal citizen: " ... Socrates learned, through practices of participation, how to judge arguments, obey orders, and work cooperatively on networked teams ... And he learned how to challenge his fellow citizens when he believed they were doing something wrong. Finally, he learned to accept full responsibility for his actions, and he willingly accepted the judgment of his community when it affected him personally -- even when he believed that the judgment was in error" (p. 147). While M/O nicely encapsulate the kind of citizen Socrates appeared to have been, they raise the bar perhaps too high. Socrates was not the typical Athenian citizen. To emulate Socrates would be a tall order for any Athenian, let alone an American worker!

M/O's final chapter reiterates the idea that knowledge-workers expect freedom, equality, and security in their work place. This means that leaders should manage according to the principle of social inclusivity, the flattening out of hierarchies, and the democratic advantages of technology. M/O believe that the fall of democratic Athens was not inevitable, though it had a good run of approximately 200 years. Athens failed because of technological limitations and over-exclusivity; that is, Athens operated according to a "cultural blindness" that prevented it from refashioning and increasing its citizen base. If Athens had grown its citizenry to include others besides Attic males, so the argument goes, they would have flourished for a longer period of time. According to the authors, the US is not making this mistake. The ever-growing inclusion of minorities and women in the political and economic life of the US, combined with the collaborative possibilities of new technologies, puts the US in a position to take advantage of an increasing pool of talent. But M/O do not give the whole story. As we now see from the practice of outsourcing, the pool of talent in the global economy extends beyond women and minorities in the US to the striving middle classes of India and China.

M/O advise that the organizational maturity of a firm be a standard against which leaders can decide how to implement a company of citizens model. An ideal manager should begin with the performance challenges faced by the firm and then introduce citizen values and practices that are appropriate for the workers in order to meet those challenges. Another crucial component in the citizen-centered firm is leadership as a shared responsibility. Leaders must be able to rule, but also be ruled. M/O favor leadership rotation, and see the market as driving such a model in view of the increasingly short tenures of CEOs. Yet their leadership exemplar, Demosthenes, who occupied a high office and thereafter was a foot soldier, appears to be too radical a model given the prominence today of charismatic leadership.8

My sense is that M/O have tipped the balance in favor of certain similarities between past and present, and they emphasize in applying their prescriptions the differences not as difficulties to be overcome through further thought and debate. M/O do say that power in today's publicly held companies all too often sits with individuals who have the greatest allotment of shares and that constructing a company of citizens on a large scale may not be possible (p. 158). But the authors focus on the connections by offering ingenious similarities between ancient Athens and contemporary American society as a preliminary exhortation for changing institutional identity. This is all well and good for the elite business-type who reads this book because he will learn much and perhaps will become inspired by the Athenian example.

Let me conclude with a philosophical point. The fundamental idea behind M/O's book that the interests of individual workers can coincide with the good of the company deserves to be championed. However, by its very nature, an institution charged with moneymaking has no choice but to define the common good according to moneymaking. Even if one substitutes "moneymaking" with terms such as "personal growth," "team work," "personal fulfillment" and the like to define what the company community or the worker values, profits and business growth likely will determine the common good of the company and identity of the worker. And here we see the fault line in the project of combining political concepts such as democracy and citizen with capitalist discourse. In a company, when the concept of the common good becomes associated with moneymaking, the term "common good" becomes redefined according to the demands of the market; and the same goes for the definition of a citizen. Given the pervasiveness of moneymaking in our socio-political system and in our sense of self, how much further should we allow our mercantilist paradigms to define our political and ethical selves?9


1.   For instance, much has been written about how privatized military firms (e.g. Halliburton) operate outside of international law and democratic principles. See recently, P. W. Singer, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military (2003).
2.   John Cassidy, "The Greed Cycle: How the Financial System Encouraged Corporations to Go Crazy," The New Yorker, 9/23/03, pp. 64-77.
3.   P. Krugman, "For Richer: How the Permissive Capitalism of the Boom Destroyed American Equality," New York Times Magazine, 10/20/02, p. 68. See also David Cay Johnston, Very Richest's Share of Wealth Grew Even Bigger, Data Show," New York Times, 6/26/03, p. 1.
4.   In his excellent article "The Talent Myth," New Yorker, 7/22/02) Malcolm Gladwell casts doubt on the talent myth through the example of the consulting firm that defined and propagated the concept, McKinsey & Company, and its seemingly intimate involvement with ill-fated Enron. The "talent mind-set" holds that the better talent a company has at all levels, the more the company will outperform its competitors. McKinsey was able to install this approach at Enron where a star system developed in which the very best and brightest employees were hired and rewarded according to their perceived talent but not necessarily their concrete performance. Independent initiatives were encouraged, often without the knowledge of superiors, and failure was not only tolerated but sometimes rewarded with promotion. Such companies like Enron "believe in stars, because they don't believe in systems ... [but] the organizations that are most successful ... are the ones where the system is the star." (p. 32) Gladwell's article flies in the face of a book written by McKinsey consultants Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones, and Beth Axelrod, The War for Talent (2001), which argues that the best companies are "obsessed with the talent issue" (Gladwell, p. 28). Perhaps it is no surprise that Manville, who from1987 to 1998 was a partner and the first Director of Knowledge Management at McKinsey, and Ober focus on the system of ancient democratic Athens as a correction of the overzealous faith companies have shown in the talent myth. M/O do believe that cooperate leaders have been "overcompensated heroic figures" (p. 180, note 4) but that there are many leaders who desire to construct "democratic culture organizations."
5.   Of all the archeological finds on the Acropolis, the beacon of democracy, only one small plaque has ever been discovered that mentions Athenian rowers.
6.   D. Mendelsohn, "Theatres of War," The New Yorker, 1/12/04, p. 80 groups historical events in the following way: "Under Cleon's brash leadership, Athens' fortunes began to oscillate between surprise victories, like the capture of a tenth of all Sparta's citizen soldiers on the islet of Sphacteria in 425, and unnecessary defeats, like the debacle at Delium in 424, the outcome of a rash effort to force a decisive encounter. Under Cleon too, Athens increasingly espoused a chilling Realpolitik. In 427, when the city of Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, revolted from the Athenian alliance known as the Delian League, Cleon proposed that all its adult men be put to death and all its women and children sold into slavery -- a motion that the Athenian Assembly passed, only to revoke it, conscience-stricken, the next day." Grouped and portrayed in this manner, Sphacteria and the Mytilenian reversal, two of M/O's shining examples of the Athenian company of citizens in action, take on a markedly different valuation, namely that the Athenian system was inconsistent and prone to reckless actions.
7.   It is interesting to note Nicias' wariness of the reaction of the Athenian demos to bad news in Sicily (Thuc. 7.14-15).
8.   P. Krugman, "For Richer," p. 67: "Since the 1980's there has been ever more emphasis on the importance of leadership -- meaning personal charismatic leadership."
9.   P. Krugman, "For Richer," p.91, cites Kevin Phillips' book Wealth and Democracy to make the point that if the plutocractic trajectory of the US is not checked, "even if the forms of democracy remain, they may become meaningless."

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