From the Editor: Being Bossless

Being Bossless

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Everyone has fantasized about being bossless—not necessary being a CEO or a president or a king but simply having the freedom to work unsupervised, with no one clocking your hours or checking your metrics against goals. Just imagine how innovative and effective and productive you'd be without someone looking over your shoulder!

Vadim Liberman's cover story explores companies structured to give their people such freedom, as networks rather than hierarchies; he looks at how they function and what they can teach managers who work, as the vast majority of us do, in traditional supervisor/supervised systems. Reading about different ways of organizing work, and realizing that they're viable, is genuinely eye-opening. As with all our best articles, it aims to challenge your assumptions and make you rethink the way you approach your job.

Vadim's article makes clear that bossless businesses look for a certain kind of employee—entrepreneurial self-starters who are both independent and collaborative—and that such people aren't all that common. And it occurs to me that even though there's no sign of conventional companies adopting open, network-based structures en masse, today's economy increasingly has room for only those people suited for bossless organizations. With established companies stubbornly refusing to use their billions in cash on hand to hire full-time employees, successful people are those able to demonstrate exceptionality and flourish outside traditional systems. As economist Tyler Cowen argues in envisioning an even more unequal future, "average is over."

A couple of decades ago, we began hearing about how the corporate social contract was melting away, along with guaranteed pensions, employer-paid health care, and organized labor. Employee loyalty, long assumed, became questionable. Every job, from now on, would be a tenuous and temporary arrangement. We would all live in, as Dan Pink put it, Free Agent Nation.

Now, in a booming economy, with upward opportunities widely available, this new arrangement would work to the benefit of all; with middle-class employment vanishing, not so much. Everyone below the C-suite, with no promises of golden parachutes, sees the ground looming all too clearly, even as lawmakers cut the safety net to ribbons.

Remember that those same lawmakers blame much of Western economies' weakness on uncertainty—how can anyone expect CEOs to launch initiatives and hire thousands of people if they don't know for sure whether particular regulations or tax provisions or the Affordable Care Act will be in place a year from now? But we pay nowhere near enough attention to the uncertainty that all of us who aren't CEOs feel. Too many—perhaps most—of us feel a low-grade dread at the constant prospect of losing everything. We are reminded regularly that our paychecks are subject to the whims of the market and the C-suite, and that our jobs can be serviceably performed by robots, computers, or some 19-year-old in Bangalore.

And as those who run bossless businesses know, most of us are not entrepreneurial self-starters; we don't want to be our own bosses. There's a big difference between work flexibility and being cut adrift, between unstructured jobs and reluctant self-employment.

Some lament the scarcity of "passionate workers" today, but can anyone expect passion from people on the verge of being forced into underemployment? Something that both lawmakers and CEOs should keep in mind: Leaving people's livelihoods in perpetual jeopardy is hardly a recipe for innovation and effectiveness and productivity.

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Matthew Budman

Editor-in-Chief

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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.