On GitHub, Leadership and Holacracy.

March 18th, 2014

I first got word of the GitHub debacle via Twitter from friend, Derek Powazek. Basically, a woman by the name of Julie Ann Horvath was forced out of GitHub due to sexism and intimidation by one of the founder’s wives, a woman who doesn’t even work for GitHub. It’s a pretty convoluted story, but the above link does an alright job of breaking it down. And the story, unfortunately, isn’t anything new for the tech industry, which seems to be notorious for treating its female employees as lesser, if they hire female employees at all.

But I am not here to discuss what happened at GitHub, or the lack of female employees in the tech industry. It’s a messy situation, that’s for sure. But I’m here to discuss why and how it took place and that has to do with leadership or lack thereof.

There is this relatively new business model called “Holacracy” which is what GitHub implements. Basically, there is no boss. There is no hierarchy. There are no managers. No one is appointed to call the shots. No one is technically in charge of telling employees what to do. And this structure, I have learned, is becoming relatively common in the tech industry.

So, how does that sound to you? Pretty great, right? I mean, an office with no authority, no management? No one scrutinizing your every move, checking over your shoulder as you bust your ass to meet a deadline? No one giving you passive aggressive looks as you saunter in at 11 AM with a looming hangover?

Sign me up!

Yes, this sounds like a pretty great idea in theory. But does it actually work? Who does one go to if one has a problem? Who is in charge of making sure everyone is pulling his or her weight? Who makes sure no one is sabotaging another employee when the employee turns them down for a date? Who is the leader? There is always a leader even if one isn’t appointed, right?

Does a hierarchy form anyway? And within that hierarchy, do those who consciously or unconsciously put themselves at the top treat others fairly? Are they working in the best interest of the business overall?

Yes, it may sound like a cool idea in theory, but I don’t think it actually works. I think this idea of having no boss and/or management of any kind is actually pretty ridiculous. I think it’s counterproductive and sets the stage for a toxic, petty work environment.

As many of you know, I am a graphic designer by trade. I went to school for it. At Penn State, the design department is a bit different from other state universities in that you don’t just declare it as a major and then head to class. Instead, one must be accepted into the program and getting accepted takes a lot of invested time and a ton of work. In other words, you have to work hard and even if you do, you’re not guaranteed anything.

Anyone wishing to get into the program is required to take two introductory design courses. Each candidate has to maintain a B average in all of his or her college courses. If they do as much, they can then undergo an intense portfolio review. Every year, hundreds of kids get to that point and every year less than 20 kids are accepted into the program. It is a highly competitive program.

To be accepted meant you were at the top of all those applying, so there is automatically a huge amount of pride associated with entering the major. Being accepted also meant that, once you graduated, you would find a job. So what if you’d have to give up sleep for the duration of the program (2 years) and you’d cry more than you’ve ever cried before and in front of dozens of other people, you got in! And sure, you might not see your friends or family during those two years, but you’d find a job and you’d have a kick ass portfolio to show for it.

To put it simply: the Penn State design program was brutal. The head of the department, while brilliant, was often tough beyond words. He was The Boss. He was who everyone looked up to, respected, and wanted to please. He called the shots. He laid down the rules. He came up with the projects, the overall feeling, the tone. He was our leader and while sometimes he could be a right bastard, he was also the most respected person in the room. We looked up to him. He truly was brilliant.

Critiques would bring many of us to tears. Stress-induced nosebleeds were a common occurrence, one dealt with by stuffing tissue or paper-towel up the noncooperative nostril. I watched kids accidentally cut themselves with an X-acto blade, a cut in need of stitches and instead of hitting the ER, they’d wrap it up with duct tape or glue it shut, whatever it took to stop it from bleeding all over their project. No one wanted our professor to zero in on that blood stain the following day.

Yes, there were days we hated our leader, and I mean hated him. He was asking too much from us! How could we possibly get done what he wanted us to get done in the time he’d given? This man was trying to kill us. What an asshole! GOD, WHY DID I AGREE TO THIS?

In turn, we became a tightly knit group of people. My graduating class consisted of thirteen people. THIRTEEN out of 20 possible spots. We became a team. If one person suffered or needed help, help was had.

There wasn’t time for petty bullshit or backstabbing because we had a deadline, god dammit! There wasn’t time for weird cliques; cliques got in the way of making sure we completed our work on time because if one person showed up with crap, the entire class suffered the consequences. Tough critiques became even more intense. Our class, and the work we put forth, was only as good as the weakest member on any given day, so we worked together as best we could.

There definitely wasn’t time for idle gossip, a corrosive killer within any work environment.

Our professor set the stage and we acted. Together. He gave us instructions and we worked alongside one another as smoothly as possible. To this day I am in awe of how well we worked together. In most work environments like the one I experienced at Penn State—where people work in such close of proximity of one another for extended periods of time—people succumb to pettiness and cliques. Leadership is formed naturally and unfairly and things start to fall apart.

All these years later, I still see how important his leadership was for our team and the overall success of the design program. And we later found out his tactics were often intentional. If he saw cliquish behavior forming, he would immediately redirect everyone’s negative attention back onto him. And somehow, every last one of us respected him even though he could be such an asshole. We looked up to him and desired his respect in return. Yes, he was often a tyrant who made us cry during critiques (even though it was never personal, it was always only about the work). Yes, sometimes we hated him. Yes, sometimes we wanted to quit. And, yes, sometimes we thought of him as a dictator, a nazi, Satan himself—all the terms many of us have used to describe a boss.

But he was who we hated when we needed to hate someone, as many employees are wont to do. He was who we directed our anger toward whenever something wasn’t going our way. We cursed him whenever the computer crashed. We blamed him when things weren’t working out. We didn’t take it out on our teammates. We didn’t have time or energy to form weird cliques. Basically, he needed his team to flow seamlessly and well. And in order to cultivate such and environment, he was the leader whether we liked it or not.

So, yeah. Call me old fashioned, but give me a leader. Show me a manager. I’m OK with hierarchy. I want someone to be in charge. (All the better if they’re awesome and worthy of my utmost respect.) The concept of not having a leader or management of any kind sounds really, really messy to me.

Lastly, I’m willing to bet that if GitHub had some form of hierarchy, this hostile environment never would have formed and Julie Ann Horvath would still have her job. If GitHub had a boss in place, they wouldn’t be enduring a slew of bad press right now. But most importantly, if GitHub allowed for some sort of appointed leadership, I bet they’d have an even better product to show for it.

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7 Comments on “On GitHub, Leadership and Holacracy.”

  1. mihow said at 12:40 pm on March 18th, 2014:

    P.S. I have had other jobs with bosses (whom I liked and didn’t like) since that time, obviously. But I think about this scenario every time I consider the politics involved intense and/or creative environments. :] I didn’t want anyone to think I haven’t had a job since! I could write a book about previous bosses.

  2. StFarmer said at 2:38 pm on March 18th, 2014:

    I’ve had some pretty crappy bosses. Sometimes that is worse than no boss. Having said that, I agree with you, Holacracy is stupidity. At least a human resources manager is needed to administer employment laws.

  3. mihow said at 4:23 pm on March 18th, 2014:

    Oh, I hear you! I have had a couple of awful bosses. Yet, still, somehow that kept us (the team) from fighting with one another. In fact, in one instance, we’d go out for drinks just to bitch about said awful boss. :]

    But, yes. Some bosses are just awful and one wonders how they got to be boss in the first place. (In the situation where I worked for a total asshat, it was a family run business. The mother started it and naturally hired her son to run the joint. I was a fucking mess and I should have known it would be. But, what are you going to do? Quit. That’s what I did eventually.)

    Overall, however, I seem to have been pretty lucky, both with “real” jobs and jobs that got me over hard times (bar tending, waiting tables, etc). Almost every job I’ve had, my immediate boss was worthy of their position. (The higher-ups? Not as much, but I was happy to have my boss as a buffer.)

  4. kimc said at 5:59 pm on March 18th, 2014:

    Thanks for this piece, it was interesting and insightful. I certainly agree that a human resource manager is needed at the very least.

  5. m said at 6:11 pm on March 18th, 2014:

    I totally agree with you on this. You can’t make a project magically appear out of the work of a bunch of unherded cats, no matter how talented each individual may be. There’s a reason why structure exists and while there can and should be flexibility within the structure, a complete lack of structure is a quick hop away from disaster.

    I’m in science and unfortunately, many bosses fall into the “talented scientist with no people/managerial skills” category while my awesome boss now falls into “intelligent and also comfortable calling the shots and dictating the flow of his lab.” You win some, you lose some.

  6. Olivier Compagne said at 6:53 pm on March 19th, 2014:

    Hi Michelle. I want to clarify that GitHub is NOT using Holacracy at all.

    I agree with the critiques against the “no-structure” ways of running an organization, but Holacracy is not one of them: it’s a specific system that’s VERY structured. That’s a big misunderstanding. I work with HolacracyOne, the company developing Holacracy, and I’ve just published this article explaining the difference:

    Holacracy vs. Hierarchy vs. Flat Orgs: https://medium.com/holacracyone-blog/d1545d5dffa7

  7. mihow said at 7:30 pm on March 19th, 2014:

    Thank you for the clarification.

    I’m off to read your article and I’m sorry if I got that wrong regarding GitHub’s structure.


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