A Case Study for 2014 – Learning from Legendary Leaders

In the spirit of being lifelong learners this new year, and every year for that matter, let me share a new word  I learned recently:  holacracy.  I am assuming you may have see this word buzzing around the Web lately.

My connection to the word comes through Tony Hsieh CEO of Zappos. As you know Tony and Zappos were the sources for my book The Zappos Experience: 5 Principles to Inspire, Engage, and Wow and this year he and his team are making some rather large holacratic changes!

Holacracy has been best defined as a social technology or system of organizational governance in which authority and decision-making are distributed throughout a fractal holarchy of self-organizing teams rather than being vested at the top of a hierarchy.  Now that makes clear doesn’t it?

The term holacracy is emerges from the Greek root word holons.  Holons refer to units that are autonomous and self-reliant, but also dependent on the greater whole of which they are a part.  Thus, a holarchy is a hierarchy of self-regulating holons that function both as autonomous wholes and as dependent parts.

So Zappos is becoming…what, exactly?!  In essence, a much, much flatter organization.  News site Quartz reports that the company will be comprised of roughly 400 circles, or holons, by December 2014 when the reorganization is complete.  News stories about the announcement have headlined with the idea that there will no longer be titles or managers who wield or distribute power according to their relative positions on the ole’ ladder of success.

Columnist and author Irving Kristol once suggested that leaders need to define that “one big thing and stick with it. Leaders who had one very big idea and one big commitment are the ones who leave a legacy.”  When asked about a Zappos legacy statement, Tony Hsieh told me, “I hope that Zappos can inspire other businesses to adopt happiness as a business model — letting happy customers and happy employees drive long-term profits and growth. Ultimately, it’s all about delivering happiness.”

We as spectators have to assume that adoption of  holacracy is another means to Tony’s happiness-focused end.  When legendary leaders of our day announce plans to do mind-bending things, an opportunity emerges for all of us to watch, learn and grow together.

How will the customer experience post-holacracy change and improve?  What are the (albeit less dramatic) takeaways that your business can consider implementing to harness the benefits of a more entrepreneurial, employee-empowered structure?  How do companies (even those with exemplary cultures) overcome obstacles, forseen and unforeseen, as they persist in their efforts to achieve an unorthodox and empowering vision?

Cheers to 2014 and the wellspring of answers and insights to come!

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Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies.

Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli


  1. Don Oakley on January 18, 2014 at 8:17 am

    We must be kindred spirits. The holon concept and organizations as holarchy ‘s has been a theme for me since I first read Ken Wilber’s book – A Brief History of Everything ” 10 or more years ago
    Holon’s have some interesting properties that extend wonderfully to organizations and how to integrate the customer into organization design.
    Stay well friend. I promise to connect when next in Fl.

  2. Joseph Michelli on January 26, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    I would be in grand company if we are kindred spirits! You were way ahead of me with the holon but what is new about me trailing you?

    We are suppose to be getting together in this new year to see if we can align efforts. Look for a call from me in the near future…. Joseph

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