Freedom at Work: Verticals & Horizontals

Posted by jlubans on July 03, 2013

Caption: “Occupy Everything” on a wall on Skolas Street in Riga Center, June 2013.

There’s an interesting article, “Paint Bombs”, about one of the guiding lights of the Occupy Wall Street movement: David Graeber.
Of most interest to me is Graeber’s concept of “verticals” and “horizontals”. For Graeber, verticals are the planners and the organizers, the party heads and march leaders, the line monitors – the guys with the bullhorns. Verticals populate the decision-making committees that tell other protesters what to do and when to do it. In the music world, a vertical is the conductor with his baton, a silent bullhorn. And, in any medium-to-large library organization, verticals are the people who inhabit the boxes on the org chart – supervisors and department heads, on up – and plan and manage the work of the hierarchy. Verticals make the decisions – sometimes shared with workers, but more often not. Protest-verticals see nothing incongruous about their managing and controlling a protest against the status quo and for more individual freedom; in their eyes, they provide an essential service: organizing and getting stuff done. A vertical believes someone must be in charge; that without leaders only chaos will result and nothing will get accomplished. And, if verticals are “more equal than others”, so be it.

Graeber takes a contrarian view – for him, the reason most organized protests go nowhere – dither - is because of verticals. Verticals interfere with the natural process of what would happen when people are left alone to engage and to come to agreement, without a boss. That is why Graeber advocated for a horizontals-emphasis at the OWS event. Apparently there were enough like-minded people to prevail over the usual protestor/organizer-types. The result was an enthusiastically egalitarian philosophy of open discussion and widely distributed decision-making. Zucotti Park became known for its “no parties (factions), no leaders, no demands.” At least for while it lasted.
I can sympathize with much of the horizontal way. My book is about encouraging managers and leaders to “let go.” That was how I managed and led; by letting go.
Leading from the Middle suggests that the “invisible leader” – the purpose of the organization – can enjoin workers and mangers to work together to achieve the most. Unlike Graeber, and most Gawd-help-us paint bomb tossing nihilisti, I believe managers and leaders have their individual roles, but the former should be doing less so that workers can do more. If that sounds paradoxical, it is, and, akin to this paradox from the earliest, genuine anarchist, Lao Tzu: “The best leader leads least.”

What I found in my days of managing and leading in libraries is that good people doing real work do not need much guidance, if any, from supervisors. They work best when left alone. “Good” staff are goal-oriented and open to other ideas and to guidance from the “boss” when distracted or off track. But, having to get permission from the boss, to file weekly “progress reports,” and to perform “performance appraisals” – along with the other accountability-minutiae of the work place – are mostly time wasters.
It probably needs repeating. Organizations that de-emphasize the strong boss or the role of management, are not without leadership or management. Leading and following are distributed across the organization instead of boxed up in the org chart. For example, consider what Chris Rufer, the CEO of the no-managers, flat organization, Morning Star means when he says: “Everyone’s a manager here, …. “We are manager rich.”

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