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The Dignitarian Way

S+B: And yet this desire to hold others back is itself pervasive — maybe even fundamental to human nature.
It certainly is pervasive. A while ago I did a book signing for Somebodies and Nobodies. A homeless person came up and looked me over. “I’m not a nobody,” she said. “I’m a somebody.” Many people would have seen things differently, as she was in dire straits. But she pointed down the street to another even more bedraggled woman: “You want to see a nobody? There’s one!”

It brought home to me that status is relative, and how nearly every “nobody” is looking for someone that he or she can feel superior to.

S+B: One of the sources of Jesse Jackson’s popularity in the 1980s was his “I Am Somebody” slogan. He used to have whole rooms chanting it. In your books you cite other examples. Is rankism a fundamental aspect of human nature?
Fundamental, yes; permanent, no. Rankism is like racism in that although it’s been around a long time, it can be disallowed and eventually overcome. It’s been a survival technique throughout history to prey upon the weak — to enslave them or exploit them. In our culture, we no longer enslave others, but we still exploit them.

But such predatory practices eventually come to an end. Exploited groups figure out how to organize against the exploiters, the rankists, the abusers of power. Sometimes it takes centuries, but the victims devise strategies that force the dominant group to cease and desist, and to accept a relationship of co-equal dignity. This happened in the United States in the 1960s; the disruptive potential of the black minority was so great — several cities were in flames — that the white majority opted to give up segregation and blatant racism. As a result, we gained the benefits that come with a fairer, more just system.

Now, the world is in a similar situation. And eventually the nobodies in the world are going to organize against the somebodies. Over the next half-century or so, poor nations will find ways to force the developed world to grant them comparable dignity, much as blacks and women did in the last 50 years, and as gays are doing now. In most parts of the world, it is no longer acceptable to insult the members of these groups. At some point, that will be true for any human being.

S+B: In your new book, All Rise, you posit that there’s a dignitarian way to run a company or organization. Why should a corporate leader embrace dignitarianism?
Because you’ll make more money. When your employees feel their dignity is secure, they will be more loyal; they’ll go the extra mile. They won’t call in sick as often. Living in an environment of constant stress, according to one health study that I read recently, is as bad for people as smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. And working in a rankist environment, under the threat of humiliation, exacts that kind of toll.

To be sure, a dignitarian environment might mean paying employees more fairly. It might mean the kind of humility that Jim Collins wrote about in his book Good to Great (HarperBusiness, 2001) as “Level Five leadership.” It might mean more transparency about salaries and about the unacceptability of firing or demoting people for speaking their mind.

S+B: Are there other components to a dignitarian organization?
There’s also the relationship of the organization to the rest of the world: how it treats its customers and competitors. I was invited to spend a day at Microsoft; internally, it’s a remarkably dignitarian system. The programmers I met feel free to propose anything, and there’s a healthy sense of merit and equality. But they were also aware that they are not regarded as a dignitarian entity in the world at large. They acknowledged that Microsoft had used its clout in ways that indignified and angered people, and that this reputation no longer served them. They are now facing Google and its slogan of “do no evil,” and they want to change the stereotype.

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  1. Jim Collins, Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t (HarperBusiness, 2001): Research into how good companies can become great, with case studies of those that have tried and even succeeded. Click here.
  2. Robert W. Fuller, All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006): Fuller’s blueprint for a “dignitarian society.” Click here.
  3. Robert W. Fuller, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank (New Society Publishers, 2003): Fuller’s introduction to the concept of rankism. Click here.
  4. Ann Graham, “The Company That Anticipated History,” s+b, Winter 2006: By recognizing the value of black customers and employees during the time of apartheid, Eskom, Africa’s largest electric company, has shown the world how to combine social leadership and business success. Click here.
  5. Art Kleiner, “Diversity and Its Discontents,” s+b, Spring 2004: Analysis of the emotional maturity required in diverse workplaces and the ways in which addressing rankism can foster a healthy environment. Click here.
  6. Reggie Van Lee, Lisa Fabish, and Nancy McGaw, “The Value of Corporate Values,” s+b, Summer 2005: A Booz Allen Hamilton/Aspen Institute survey of corporate behavior finds that leading companies are crafting a purpose-driven identity, based on ethical behavior, honesty, integrity, and social concerns. Click here.
  7. Jack Welch with Suzy Welch, Winning (Collins, 2005): An overview of Welch’s managerial practices, including the “rank and yank” by which the bottom 10 percent of employees every year are fired. Click here.
  8. Breaking Ranks Web site: The Web site devoted to Robert Fuller’s analysis of the “dignity movement.” Fuller’s biography is also available through this site. Click here.
  9. Jim Collins’s Web site: Showcases his ideas and work. Click here.
  10. Thank you to Global Business Network’s Nancy Murphy for helping to set up this interview.
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