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The Power of Voluntary Cooperation

by Ann K. Brea and Mark Burgess

Leadership is a huge topic. It’s how we get from a world of ad hoc outcomes to one with verifiable desired outcomes — and at the scale of an organization or even a country! How to begin? Some dwell on human qualities, but what if there were a deeper angle, which wasn’t about skilled individuals at all, but rather about how groups cooperate?

Scaling a business is probably the first cliché you’ll hear as an entrepreneur. Even before we get to the politics of business, and its varied personality types, we need to think about how we scale cooperation — from lending a helping hand to orchestrating complex processes between ordinary individuals. Getting people to work together isn’t as straightforward as it seems. And how it scales is a subtle story.

Terms like authority, legitimacy of decision-rights, and other ideas pop up, as if you could stake a claim on leadership. Some individuals do try, if not by competence then by charisma. But there’s something deeper going on in cooperation— something that concerns relationships between individuals over time more the individuals. The question of securing the “rights” to lead is a complex issue and actually something of a red herring — because even if you have somehow procured those rights, it doesn’t guarantee willing cooperation. Trust, after all, is not cheap.


There’s a simple case that illustrates these points nicely: music.

Music is an activity where skilled individuals come together to cooperate in the production of something that none of them could do alone. Musicians have to promise cooperation in space, in time, in role, and in listening to each other for mood and phrasing — otherwise the result could be disastrous. Disrespect musicians, and you won’t get them to put on your show. They have to give their time, their skill, and their feeling to the outcome.

Even when musicians use modern studio techniques to multitrack music (playing all of the instruments by themselves) they have to take on different aspects of the composition, yielding the absolute “right” (self-granted) to act individually and ad hoc for each voice in turn. In other words, they have to suppress different skills and desires, and emphasize different promises to coordinate the final result. That’s creativity.

There’s a time and a place for everything, just not in a composition. Otherwise music and art would be indulgent chaos. Sometimes improvisation works, but rarely at scale. In music, the goal is to submit oneself to a collective performance.


Of course, playing with a handful of musicians is very different from playing in a 200 person orchestra. And running a small startup is different from running a 200 or 2000 person company.

It’s not so much about who decides, as who is willing to yield!

Musicians in a jazz band coordinate 1:1 with each other, directly

In a small ensemble, instrumentalists can improvise jazz just by listening to each other and responding (see figure above). They know and trust one another, having built a direct relationship over time. In an orchestra, the scaling is harder.

Musicians in an orchestra coordinate through a score and a signal leader

A hundred musicians (see figure above) can’t all listen to one another to second guess what happens next. Rather, they coordinate weakly by listening to the whole and by watching a conductor. They coordinate strongly with the music itself — i.e.with the unfolding outcome, directed essentially by the written score. No one forces them to play together. They come voluntarily and give up the freedom to choose, so that they can all coordinate and play their separate parts in the score. It’s not the army. How the score was chosen, and how it was put together is a different issue. It could be a collaboration or a single act of an individual.

The role of the conductor in an orchestra is widely misunderstood. The conductor is an appointed leader, but does not direct musicians in what and how to play — the score does that. The conductor couldn’t possibly maintain a relationship with each member of the orchestra to make that work. At best he or she can give a few hand signals, when to start, when to play a bit louder, etc, addressing each of the roles of instrument groups. But the conductor trusts the musicians because they promise their skills voluntarily, and they have history together. They promise to suppress the urge to show off the full range of those abilities for the duration of the performance — to play only what is written, what has been designed. Their subordination to the outcome is entirely voluntary, and the conductor simply helps them to get on with it. That’s leadership.


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