This is not a tale of seamless success: Athens went through periods of boom and bust, triumph and defeat. But its processes and structures proved resilient in the face of adversity because they were traditional and radical at the same time, allowing new solutions while preserving the best from the past. For example, in a process the authors describe as building “networks of networks,” the Athenians created 10 new urban tribes by mixing traditional village-based groups from different geographic/economic settings — agricultural, urban, and maritime. Each of the tribes sent 50 men a year to be members of the Council of 500, which was a hotbed of ideas (we might call it an incubator today) fostered by citizens working across class, experiential, and geographical boundaries.
The authors know their history, and this must be one of the most detailed studies of Athenian democracy accessible to the general reader. The implications for modern private-sector organizations, however, remain sketchy. Inhabitants of firms that resemble the austere Sparta more closely than the free-spirited Athens might wonder how leadership through persuasion and vision could ever replace a command-and-control tyranny. The use of the Athenian model also raises the question of why our political processes no longer resemble those of the first democracy. It also makes one wonder about the appropriateness of the comparison between ancient city-state and modern corporation. How democratic can a corporation, with its narrow purposes and complex technology, really be?
Perhaps at the root of the problem is our unrealistic notion of how quickly organizations can change. A Company of Citizens is a thought-provoking, inspirational “why to work this way” book rather than a practical “how to do it” manual. As such, it is in the tradition of many other writings that have called for the greater democratization of the workplace and empowerment of those who work in it. But the actual change may take generations, and its goals will never be fully realized. This passionate vision of ancient Athens, however, reminds managers that the struggle is worth the effort.
Scott Borg, [email protected]
Scott Borg is a research fellow at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. In addition to lecturing at many leading universities, he has been a featured contributor on Public Radio International’s Marketplace Morning Report.