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Passion, People and Principles

Warlords and Civil Society

post # 421 — August 22, 2007 — a Strategy post

I need some help from the historians and anthropololigists among you.

In the history of mankind’s evolution, civil society (social collaboration, governed by the rule of law) triumphed in most countries over the warlords (rule by those with aggressive individual force and the willingness to use it.)

But how and why? How did the feudal barons with their armies come to accept the rule of law? How did developed economies come to root out (most) self-serving corruption and establish trustworthy civil servants?

What lessons can we learn that apply within businesses? How do we “tame” the individual warlords (rainmakers) and get them to do things for the good of the firm?


Duncan Bucknell said:

Umm, David, how many of the warlords actually survived the transition?

(I think you may have advocated something similar when talking about setting and sticking to minimum standards, right?)

posted on August 22, 2007

Dave Crisp said:

Great question. As with England’s King John, the next warlords in line gang up and take power as a group from the despot. Unfortunately this “democracy” is far from perfect as the new crew only share power among themselves… until the next level demand a piece of the action, too… and so on down the line until eventually England finally “frees the poor” in the Industrial revolution and declares slavery illegal… centuries later. Slowly the downtrodden gain protection, rights and power from laws and new social customs or “culture” as we would see in companies, either because enlightened despots give it to them and that becomes the culture or they take it… which is more rare in companies because they don’t have such long histories to build up the downtrodden.

The moral, if there is one, is don’t let your rights be trampled when you take a job. Be one of the junior warlords. Stand up for yourself, your own work-life balance and the rights of customers and others weaker than you wherever possible… and leave for somewhere else if you can’t.

posted on August 22, 2007

Ken Hedberg said:

The most stable societies during the written history of the past 5,000 years have been in China, Egypt, and Rome. Each survived for 1,000 to 3,000 years. The emergence of a stable government accompanied by the rule of law, in these societies and others less long-lived, took place for non-altruistic reasons. To establish and maintain order in a larger, geographically spread empire, and reliably collect taxes across cultural and tribal boundaries, the ruling class determined that some form of administrative order and stability was necessary – bureaucracy and the rule of law. Few of the leaders in any of these societies looked or acted like ‘enlightened despots’, but more like self-interested empire-sustainers.

Of course, transfer of substantial power to ‘the mob’ always derives from establishment of the rule of law. Then, over multiple generations, that power transfer seeps down through the levels of society until it looks like freedom, just as Dave Crisp notes happened in England. Ironically, this appearance of freedom ultimately actually became substantive individual freedom in several places, notably ancient Greece and the modern western societies of Europe and North America following the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century.

Why does this seem to look and feel ‘better’? I think many of us experience the answer in our observations and work with client organizations. To wit: spreading power down and across an organization has the effect of dramatically increasing the total power and energy in an organization. Empowerment isn’t about leaders giving up power in a zero-sum transfer, but rather raising the power levels in every member. In yet another irony, this spread of power in societies with stable administrative forms and the rule of law typically results in leaders adapting by adopting ‘enlightened’ leadership in order to sustain and shepherd the distributed power. (“We govern only by the consent of the governed” – what a classic statement of the challenge of empowered organizations!)

The question always seems to be: How do you bind people together who hold lots of power? Raw, coercive force never works for more than a limited time (say, one or a few generations). King John faced this exactly in early-13th Century England. He wasn’t strong enough to sustain coercion as a binding force among the nobility. They imposed a new level of the rule of law and power distribution upon the Crown in the form of the Magna Carta. Note the complete lack of altruism, but rather the interplay of power politics.

In the post-industrial corporate world, we have hit upon values and vision as mechanisms to bind together people with substantial power. Competitive dynamics among organizations makes it necessary to sustain substantial empowerment to match the energy levels and productivity of competitors. Maybe other strategies or forms can also bind together people with relatively high levels of individual power. Values and vision seem to respond to the economic forces of a knowledge- and information-based global economy.

I don’t mean to sound cynical, if you read this so. But, I do indeed believe that it’s all about power – distributing it in order to raise the overall power, energy, and productive force of an organization. So… Bind those warlords to your organization through shared vision and values. Don’t make any effort to reduce their power and energy, it’s what you need desperately.

posted on August 22, 2007

Coert Visser said:

Hi David, I like the way you put this question, I think it is a very solution-focused way of framing your question (because you ask what has worked in the past). Regarding the content of your question: there is an article by Willem Mastenbroek which I think rather directly addresses the question you ask: Struggling with violence and fanatism. Mastenbroek explain the civilization process along the lines of power and negation. I think this is an interesting perspective. Another perspective, by the way, can be found in the line of research on computerised prisoner’s dilemma tournaments. Robert Axelrod wrote a great book about this called The Evolution of Cooperation. (see more about it here). Axelrod found that a very simple and rather civilized strategy (tit-for-tat) over time (and over generations) turned out to be very successful. Maybe you know this research, if not do take a look.

All the best,


posted on August 23, 2007

Willem Mastenbroek said:

Dear David: I am glad with your question. A historical perspective on the development of societies and organizations is not very common. Ken Hedberg states “it’s all about power – distributing it in order to raise the overall power, energy, and productive force of an organization.” Coert Visser in his reaction mentions an article with some of my views on this matter. Thanks Coert!

In Organizational Innovation in Historical Perspective I described how over the centuries changing balances of power and dependency within organizations are related to competitive strength.

posted on August 23, 2007

wangjel said:

the law what serve security and comfort of the community create the base of acceptance

posted on August 24, 2007

Victor Sanchez del Real said:

As a citizen of what is still a monarchy (Spain), i can assure you our warlords (later evolved into local rulers, nobility and, eventually state-wide kings) adapted to laws when it suited their own interest.

In the case of most ex-roman provinces the reference of Roman Law whas just too “sexy” not to base most of those new self-serving adaptations based in the roman parafernalia of rules and regulations.

What our warlords in southern europe could not preview is thah consistency is something that can prevail, in the long ther, over short sighted objectives.

Once one roman law was re-used by warlords, the trend to use other laws of the same origin (ironically based mostrly in a republican system) by the whole of the growing bureoucratic bodies, was unstoppable in the long term.

Or as we say “you give them the hand, ant they take both your legs”.

posted on August 28, 2007

Duncan said:

Victor – this is really interesting.

So, in reigning in professional service firm warlords, you need to set up a new way of doing things that appeals to their interests. I guess this comes back to Willem’s comment too – you need to have the power (the mandate) to provide the incentives (both good and bad).

posted on August 28, 2007

Victor Sanchez del Real said:

Yes, sorry for the latin, but one thing is autoritas and a very diferetn one is potestas.

“Potestas” is power based on legal coercion, while “autoritas” refers to the moral influence based on prestige and dignity and is, therefore, closely related to psychology.

You are awarder potestas by the organization, by the rules, by your job description.

Autoritas is something you really win for yourself, over time.

Those warlords, tend to have more autoritas in their surroundings than the autoritas they were supossed to be administering.

So going back to my example, the early barons in medieval times where triying to build a new autoritas basing their ruling in a pre-existing organization (the Roman Empire).

No wonder most european kings were fighting like madmen over who was the owner of Emperor of the sacro-imperio-germanico. Linking their royalty to the caesars. Since charlemagne, with emprero Chalres of Spain, all the way to Bismark this has been a desire by all local rulers. It was a way of saying “hey guys, i’m the true heir to that empire and their samazing organization”.

In my experience i have seen minor warlords in big organizations use the very rules of the company in order to undermine other’s power and reinforce theirs.

My solution: stablish a final veto rule on the top of piramid. A kind of “use in case of fire” veto, not to be used except in those rare times when someone is following the rules but in a perverse way thah might affect the whole firm interests.

posted on August 29, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Thank you everybody for this. Really helpful. One aspect I’d love to hear more about. Is there a parallel between these days when powerful partners (and their followers) are so mobile, switching allegience between firms, and the olden days when nation states were still being formed, and the emerging kings (or emperors) had to compete for the fealty or loyalty of the barons (ie persuade them to join one state rather thana the other.) Is there more that can be said about getting the barons to join your gang rather than joining up with some other gang?

posted on August 29, 2007

Victor Sanchez del Real said:

We are getting more in a condottieri world.

Changing paradigm, from the individual Swords for hire to the full team allegiance to a new master. We can see more and more groups following a “warlord” to his new company.

Following the historical analogy, the solution kings found for this was to stop hiring condotieris, and create new forms of troops, with direct allegiance to the king (not the condotieri) and the “nation” (flag, spritit, us vs. them, sprit de corps, etcetera).

Modern nations strarted to solve this problem as early as the 1400’s (FRance, Spain, England, …), while other natios simply did not become nations until much later because they could not overcome the “frrelnce” armies. For example Italy suffered this until 1850’s, and Germany until almos 20th century. All because their mercenary troops controlled small portions of those wider national feelings. Switzerland, well known for it’s mercenaries up to early 1900’s is another example.

An anecdote is that in the fisrt battle that Napoleon lost in the Peninsular War against spanish semi-amateur troops, the Battle of Bailen, both sides had swiss mercenary regiments. At the decissive moment the swiss mercenaries declined fighting, formally saluted their “friends” and left the battle, because they always had the rule that they never would fight another swiss mercenary group.

Some say that general Castaños sharply positioned his only swiss regiment in front of the three swiss-french in order to neutralize 3 regiments with only one. But, Hey, you never know. ;-)

posted on August 29, 2007

Coert Visser said:

Hi David and all, here is a post about building civilized workplaces: 11 simple rules for building a civilized workplace… Might be of interest (especially for advocates of principle centered working.

posted on August 31, 2007

Ken Hedberg said:

Victor Sanchez del Real neatly distinguishes autoritas from potestas. Thanks, Victor.

The rule of law provides the leader potestas – the ability to coerce allegiance across members of a society, or an organization. But, having granted rights under potestas, the leader begins the process of enabling increased autoritas among the governed.

Isn’t this exactly the challenge of emerging warlords in our firms? They hold autoritas, and know it! We can only bind them to our firms if we appeal to their interests, including tangible rewards, real power & influence, and ideals through vision & values. If we don’t appeal to their interests, they’ll leave and exert their autoritas to take staff, customers, and firm value with them.

Coert Visser points us to “11 simple rules…” These do provide guidance for building a civilized workplace in terms of interpersonal relations, it seems to me. But, they miss the importance of aligning interests and power. Victor’s reminders of potestas and autoritas makes it all come together for me.

posted on August 31, 2007

David (Maister) said:

I don’t know about the rest of you out there, but I have found all these comments to be very stimulating and enightening. Thanks, everybody! Keep them coming!

posted on August 31, 2007