In Holacracy, the Lead Link of a circle is chosen by the Lead Link of its super-circle, but people sometimes ask, “Why isn’t the Lead Link elected? After all, the other three core roles (Rep Link, Secretary, and Facilitator) are elected; why not the Lead Link (LL)?” Here are a few reasons why it would be a bad idea and a few alternatives which work better.
We aren’t trying to balance power by electing a “Leader.” When first discovering Holacracy, this question is often coming from a false assumption that Holacracy is “democratic,” and therefore the people should elect its leaders. But, Holacracy isn’t a system for governing people, it’s a system for people to govern the roles/functions of an organization. Moreover, the LL isn’t the “leader” of the circle.
The LL is just another operational role. Sure it has power, but so does the role who decides on pricing, branding, or distribution. And in searching for a role-filler, we want the best person for the job, we aren’t looking for a way to balance power, because power has already been distributed into defined roles.
The LL role does require a specific set of skills though and it’s an important job. It’s just not MORE important than the others.
Inherent flaws in the election process make it a particularly bad way to fill an operational role. Elections may work sufficiently well when finding someone with easily visible skills, like facilitating meeting processes (Secretary and Facilitator), or when you need a substitute or proxy for the group (Rep Link).
But when the voters lack the information necessary to make a well-informed choice, as when you’re filling a role with difficult to see skills, the fundamental flaw of elections is exposed.
And having to choose someone when you don’t feel qualified to make the choice creates a unique kind of anxiety (if you’ve ever tried hiring a contractor to do a job you know nothing about, then you know this feeling).
Ideally, each voter would have the opportunity to research two questions; a) what makes a good LL?; and b) who among everyone in the company has these skills and is the best fit for the work this circle performs? But this kind of information is rarely available to circle members.
Instead what usually happens is the most popular person gets elected, but popularity is a poor indicator of LL skill (as is hiring your friend to remodel your house because he’s a nice guy).
In fact, we don’t always consciously choose what is best for us (much less the organization). We may want a LL who is easier to work with but end up sacrificing some needed boundary-management discipline.
But has it ever been tried before? Yes, and from every example I know, it hasn’t worked well (and certainly not when compared to the simpler alternative of just having it filled like any other role).
Brian Robertson shares this story:
"We tried it at Ternary and it was a disaster. We wanted to elect a Lead Link for the Software Development circle. 95% of the people elected Brad. He was friendly and polite. Everyone liked him. He was also a project manager, so people assumed he must be good at organizing things.
But Brad didn’t have any experience running a software team. His own personal GTD [Getting Things Done] practice was strong, but he’d never been a team lead.
Moreover, there was history no one else knew about. When Brad had been given this kind of responsibility he had failed. Most people didn’t know that. In fact, the only two people who knew there was a potential role-fit issue were me and Brad.
But Brad was more easily convinced by the support of others who wanted him to do it. I knew it was going to be a problem, so I raised an objection. Then everything got really weird.
Suddenly it appeared like ‘the power from on high’ was trying to stop the people from electing their own leader. It immediately became a ‘us versus them’ dynamic.
They want this guy because they got along with him, which was a good thing, but it was his operational abilities I questioned. Now, poor Brad is sitting there the whole time, while I’m having to critique him publicly to protect the company. It was uncomfortable and awful."
And this isn’t the only time it’s been tried. Zappos, after several years of maturing Holacracy practice, wanted to experiment with electing Lead Links as a solution for circles that felt they needed a change, but the results were similarly strange.
Paul Walker, who has worked extensively inside Zappos on its Holacracy practice, reports:
"The Good: The mere existence of the ability to elect a Lead Link helped solve some problems even without the election actually happening because it gave us the opportunity to have a conversation with the team prior to calling for an election. The conversation itself resolved things for most teams.
The Bad: The vast majority of issues came about in the first place because LL’s were not being held accountable by their Super-Circle LL’s. While an election *can* help, it won’t guarantee the Super-Circle LL will start holding the Sub-Circle LL accountable, so the same problems could continue to persist."
So, electing a Lead Link may seem like a good idea from theory, but in practice it doesn’t work well. Only in the rarest of situations could an election be equally effective as having one person own the decision (i.e. the LL of the super-circle) and elections have a lot of potential downsides.
Address the issue directly with the LL role-filler. Often the question of electing a Lead Link surfaces because circle members have unprocessed tensions with the current LL role-filler. Not the role itself.
So, the solution shouldn’t be elect around an uncomfortable conversation, but address the issue directly. Or, if that’s too uncomfortable, then share your perspective with the LL of the super-circle, because they have an accountability for “…monitoring role-fit and offering feedback to enhance fit” for any role-fillers they’ve assigned.
Propose removing an authority from the LL. If the concern is with the role itself, then you can always propose delegating authorities away from the LL (the Constitution only prevents you from adding accountabilities to the LL). For example, a Customer Advocate role may be given the authority to assign role-fillers in the Customer Service Rep role. This is then removing the authority from the LL to do that (i.e. removing the domain). Allocating resources, setting priorities, or any other function of the Lead Link can be delegated away.
Alternatively, policies can be proposed to put constraints on how the LL energizes the role. Like a policy which says the LL can’t remove someone from a role unless they get a “no objection” from the Rep Link. Or a policy which constrains how LLs define strategies for their circles by requiring them to follow a defined process (you can see HolacracyOne’s version here).
Note: The LL could always object to a proposal, but it’s still a great way to process a tension (i.e. no objection can ever stop you from processing your tension; it just might require some integration).