What an Argentinian factory without bosses can teach us about being a great leader

I recently came across an article about an Argentinian factory that inspired me to reflect on my role as a business leader.

The piece, written by Wladek Flakin, described his encounter with workers at a ceramic tile factory in Patagonia. Facing unemployment when their boss, Luigi Zanon, announced he would shut down the plant, the workers rebelled and insisted on running the factory themselves.

In the absence of a boss, they continued production, created 200 additional jobs, and used profits to provide schools and residents with new tiles. And without Zanon at the helm, a name change was in order. Formerly called Zanon, the factory is now known as FaSinPat — short for Fábrica Sin Patrones, which means “factory without bosses” in Spanish.

But it wasn’t the workers’ triumph that gripped me, as impressive as it was. I found myself coming back to two questions Flakin posed: Where does the need for a boss come from? And do we really need bosses at all? Although Flakin focuses more on the success of the FaSinPat workers than he does on answering those questions, his queries struck a chord.

As a leader and “boss,” I agree with Flakin’s sentiment that bosses are “not universally loved.” To an extreme, bad bosses can perpetuate hate and create anxiety and fear. More commonly, bosses can simply make honest mistakes that employees don’t agree with. As a company gets larger, it can be difficult to make everyone “happy.” But workers needn’t throw out the concept of bosses and ownership entirely.

Bosses vs. owners

Flakin seemed to use the terms “bosses” and “owners” interchangeably, but I believe it’s important to distinguish the two. While it’s true that they’re often one and the same during the early years of companies and in many small businesses, the roles can separate as businesses grow.

Entrepreneurs invest considerable amounts of their own time and capital when getting their businesses off the ground, making them the de facto owner-bosses. But the role of entrepreneurs is to build companies that can thrive in their absence. Once they’ve achieved that, the wisest of entrepreneurs cede their management duties to someone more qualified. By the time a business has been operating several years, the owner and boss can (and often should) be two different people.

Whether you’re the owner or an outside hire, being a great boss requires a vast, nuanced set of skills. We all have stories about working under terrible bosses. But how many times do you hear people singing the praises of exceptional managers, supervisors or CEOs? Those tales are far less frequent because it’s seemingly tough to be a good boss, and it’s even harder to be an exceptional one. Even ethical, well-intentioned people fail in these positions.

Having said that, bosses aren’t above criticism and scrutiny. Flakin praises the FaSinPat workers’ system because they vote colleagues into administrative roles and have the power to remove those who underperform. In my opinion, traditional bosses should be subject to such “recall” as well. Bosses who fail to fulfill their roles must be held to the same termination standards as employees — regardless of whether they carry the “owner” title.

Are bosses necessary?

I spent a lot of time reflecting on this question after reading Flakin’s piece. He wonders whether society and businesses “can work in a different way” — one that removes traditional hierarchies and relies instead on worker cooperation.

The FaSinPat workers clearly were onto something, given their achievements in the 15 years since they took over the factory. Bosses are responsible for creating and nurturing their companies’ ecosystems, but Zanon was a bad boss, and his foundation was corrupt. So his employees decided to take matters into their own hands and offer a different solution.

As the CEO of my accounting consulting firm, I feel compelled to build a positive, productive and inspiring work environment. If I want employees to take greater ownership of their projects or demonstrate accountability, I need to infuse that mindset into the company culture and practice what I preach.

Being a good great boss

Being a great boss is no easy feat. Even the most revered leaders make mistakes and frustrate their workers. But by approaching the position with the right mindset, you can create the kind of company that retains its ideal employees and exemplifies that great relationship between a boss, an owner and an employee.
1. Identify your strengths and rock them hard. Before you can become an effective boss, you need to know your strengths and your weaknesses. Have the courage and humility to delegate when necessary so you can create a positive influence in the company. Nurture up-and-coming managers who can work alongside you and offset your weaknesses, and ensure you’re focused on what you do best.
2. Implement a democratic, agile business structure. Healthy workplace ecosystems depend on a different kind of democracy. Apply a bit of social business design theory to your organization by encouraging collaboration, feedback and optimization. Workers are more likely to contribute to progress if they feel like they’re vital, valued members of the organization.
3. Establish proactive controls to keep all stakeholders in check. No matter how enlightened a leader you are, your business needs control mechanisms. Unions guarantee workers a certain standard of treatment, which reassures employees that their needs will be represented and met. Allowing for some form of “unionization” signals that you acknowledge your fallibility and respect workers’ rights to protect themselves.
4. Have an exit strategy for when you start sucking. Great business owners know the importance of an exit strategy. Knowing that a day will come when you’ll step back from the day-to-day operations motivates you to establish a healthy ecosystem that can thrive without you. And if you get bad at your job, you’ll have a plan to step aside gracefully.
5. Use your superpowers for good: Create more jobs. If we want to shift toward ethical business practices, we need to celebrate and emulate entrepreneurs who use their powers intentionally for the greater good. Bosses and workers can (and must) work together for mutual benefit; their aims don’t have to be at odds. Best-case scenario: Bosses empower employees, create more jobs and generate wealth in their local communities.

By taking a democratic, cooperative approach, you can create a successful business without sacrificing workers’ interests. Approach your business from this holistic perspective instead of from the traditional hierarchical view, and it will prosper long after you’ve stepped away.

Modern-day Renaissance man Mathew Heggem, known as the dancing CEO, is the co-founder of SUM Innovation. From #AccTech overhauls to full-time CFOs, this NYC-based accounting consulting firm helps fast-growth businesses and global entrepreneurs transform their businesses through the power of numbers. Mathew also originated the #SUMTech initiative, an annual summit that explores the intersection between accounting, technology, and entrepreneurship as it relates to trends within the SUM ecosystem. And in true Renaissance fashion, Mathew is also a nationally recognized, award-winning dance artist and choreographer for Left Side Labs.