Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Is that Mussolini I see in your company?

City-States have existed throughout millennia of history. The Greeks are the most well-known (Athens and all those philosophers are probably to blame), Italy and the (un)Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations are lesser known, and no-one seems to talk about the Canaanite city-states. The Biblical history gives 7 nations and 31 kings being conquered by the Israelites, partially verified by other records, and how would you fit 31 kingdoms into a land the size of ancient Israel? Those were city-states, I’ll bet, small in size and loosely confederated.

Leaving that one alone, what is a city-state exactly? The Encyclopedia Britannica defines the city-state as a “a political system consisting of an independent city having sovereignty over contiguous territory and serving as a centre and leader of political, economic, and cultural life.” (via Wikipedia.) Britishisms* are lovely as always, but that definition doesn’t fit the bill. Contiguous territory is a small matter, applicable to countries and continents too. A greater issue is that these cities were not always independent. The German city-states in particular were fiefdoms of noblemen/church officers ruled by one Emperor. The Jewish lobbyist-turned-court-member Joselman of Rosheim notes a conversation with Emperor Maximilian I, after having recited a blessing in his presence containing a reference to king of kings: "The Jew is right! I am a king of kings. The king of France is a king of donkeys, for his subjects bear everything he loads on them. My grandson, Charles of Spain, is a king of men, for the Spaniards obey him only in little things. The king of England rules over angels, for he does nothing unjust, and they obey him willingly and happily. We, however, rule over kings, for our German princes only obey us when it suits them, and therefore are kings themselves!" (As novelized from diaries by Marcus Lehmann.)
Buildings at Downtown - Hudson Riverside
I guess city-states are vague entities that have certain traits in common: people gather in one place under one governing agent, sharing certain rules and culture, yet may be loosely subject to a larger governing body. Does that remind you of anywhere you spend 9 to 5 at? A culture apart, yet subject to the federal and other governments.

Why is it important to realize that companies are kingdoms unto themselves? Because no matter how hard the government, federal down, tries, they will never truly know the goings-on in any company. They aren't fighting a losing battle, the battle is never joined. The employees and management that live the corporate ethos, political battles and day to day culture are the only ones that truly know what the company is like. The Feds dabble in OSHA, EEOC, FLSA, SEC, INS and myriad regulations and patrolling officers, and barely touch the surface of issues within. How many issues will employees swallow to remain employed? How many allowances does management make to avoid public nuisance? How many regulations are just downright useless and are rightfully ignored?

To top that off, government certainly does not impact corporate culture. Ultimately, neither do employees. Each Corporate City-State reflects the culture created by following the behavior of whoever runs the company hands-on. Private owner, CEO, Steve Jobs - it's not the board, not the mid-level people, it's the one on top that everyone instinctively copies - or they move on. (Steve Jobs deserves the creation of a new category. You know that.) This can go on and on, and it will. Just not in this post.

Topics like these can easily descend to snark and sarcasm. Companies have been called evil behemoths. I'll valiantly defend against such villainy, but it may slip through. I beg for pardon in advance. Companies are imperialist running dogs, provoking war and slaughter for profit? In reality, companies are just groups of people following the leader of the city-state, while trying not to run afoul of the larger federal nation-state. Oh, and the title? Mussolini negotiated the creation of the Vatican City-State in 1929. Thank you, Wikipedia. And it’s true, too.

There are valuable lessons to be gained by comparing company parts to city-state functions. How about we start with: The HR department of the Corporate City-State? Or Telecommuting and the Corporate City-State? Let me know.

*MS Word tried to change this to Briticisms, meaning “A word or figure of speech used in Britain exclusively or primarily.” What an awful, awful word. Speaking of awful words, here's an awfully-named world rulers conspiracy. Entertaining, in a classic bad tv kind of way.
blog comments powered by Disqus