Beyond Serving Stakeholders

March 2, 2010 - 4:45pm

Why does an organization exist?  I see several distinct paradigms in operation today, each with a different general answer to that question.  Let’s look at some of these with an evolutionary lens, and then bridge to what may be next.

Shareholder-Driven Model

We’re all familiar with the shareholder-driven paradigm, the predominant model in operation today (we’ll focus on for-profits for now, though there are equivalents with non-profits). In its healthy form, the shareholder-model looks at organizations as existing primarily to advance shareholder interests, by providing products and services to customers who consume them.  

This paradigm is a major leap forward from the preceding view, which looks something like “the organization exists to maintain the organization and its status-quo” – picture the stereotypical bureaucratic, inward-focused government agency and you’ll get the idea.


Stakeholder-Driven Model

More recently we’ve seen the emergence of a new paradigm, a shift from the shareholder-model to the “stakeholder-model”, which looks at an organization as existing to serve the many stakeholders connected to it, including investors, but also employees, members of the local community, the environment, etc. Several recent studies show that companies operating from this paradigm generate better returns on average for all stakeholders, including investors, compared with those operating from a shareholder-model.  However, the stakeholder paradigm isn’t simply an incremental improvement on the prior model, but a fundamental transformation with a qualitatively different mindset and view. 


Evolution-Driven ModelLikewise, I believe there’s a next-step beyond the stakeholder-model, what I’ll call a “transpersonal” model of organization.  In this paradigm, the organization is no longer viewed as property, even shared property, here to serve us – even all of us.  

Instead of our desires driving the organization, it is driven by its own unique purpose in life – not just a purpose that’s “all about the people”, but one that is genuinely evolutionary, about helping creativity unfold for the sake of the future.  The organization is viewed as something akin to a new form of life, and the people involved are its stewards.  Their job is to get their own desires out of the way, like healthy parents supporting a child’s journey, so that the organization can express its unique self and deepest creative potential in life.

This focus on an evolutionary potential beyond serving human ego is a deep but subtle shift embedded within Holacracy, and it takes awhile to fully digest.  Its processes help to differentiate the organizational entity from the people connected to it, while also integrating them in a new relationship grounded in mutual freedom and support.  Where today’s progressive people-centric view of organizations can become narcissistic and self-limiting, Holacracy’s focus offers a more liberating ground – inviting people to serve something larger than themselves, larger even than the collective, for the sake of evolution’s further unfolding.  This is the ultimate aim of Holacracy – to liberate the organization to become a direct expression of evolution in action, creativity unleashed, free from the shackles of serving human ego.

Did I lose you?  That’s okay – none of this would have made sense to me either before I started my own journey with Holacracy.  Fortunately there’s no need to understand or agree with all of my views to use Holacracy to better reach whatever aims you resonate with.  I offer my thoughts in the spirit of helpfulness and utility, and invite you to take what you can use and leave the rest.

If you liked this post, share it:



Submitted by Bernard Marie Chiquet (not verified) on March 25, 2010 - 6:09pm. #

Hi Brian,


I appreciate your thoughts. I recommand organisation to go from an ego-centric point of view to an eco-centric point of view. How can this organisation better serve the eco-system? By using its talents?



Submitted by Brian Setzler (not verified) on April 21, 2010 - 6:12pm. #

Interesting notion which I'll have to ponder.


I'm curious, why do you write Holacracy with a trademark?

Submitted by Brian Robertson on April 21, 2010 - 7:35pm. #

Hi Brian - Because Holacracy is a trademark of HolacracyOne, LLC.  We license that mark to professional consultants and trainers/speakers who want to spread the Holacracy™ operating system, which enables HolacracyOne to do quality-control of their skill/capacity with the method, and otherwise help maintain the integrity of the brand.  Hope that clarifies!

Submitted by Guest (not verified) on May 20, 2010 - 5:07pm. #


I appreciate the distinctions and the graphics - they help!  And you haven't lost me on the aim - that does make sense to me; and on a practical matter I think serving the aim of the evolving organization has the potential to be clearer and simpler than the current model of attempting to serve the aim of what is sometimes countless stakeholders.  So I'm good on that point.  It's in the detail of how people in an organization discover the aim of the organization where I'm fuzzy.  And I know we've had a practitioner’s session on this very topic, and still I'm fuzzy. 

I’ve recently done some work and had some limited training perceiving what another individual might be feeling/desiring/experiencing without the usual modes of feedback (the individuals were horses!).  While it might be a stretch to relate this to discovering the aim of an organization it has me thinking that we might be able to use a similar process.    After all, organizations can’t of themselves talk either.  

The first step is to get clear about where you are in that moment (take note of what you are feeling, what’s going on for you in your body, mind, emotions, etc.) and then from that baseline, consciously connect to the other individual/entity – mostly by putting your attention there, and possibly by moving physically closer.  Then take note of what changed in your body, mind, and emotions.  If you can get good at these things – especially in knowing yourself and connecting with the other, then the difference tends to fall out, to present itself as “not me”.  With an individual, even without talking you can get feedback based on taking some action (even if the action is a change in your perceptions of the other) and then sense again if this feels in accord or discord with the other.  Where I get stymied in applying this process to an organization is that I have no idea how to connect to, sense or get closer to an organization.  I keep seeing an organization as a collection of people, and not an entity unto itself.  And some part of me really rails against organizations taking on consciousness or ‘rights’ of their own.




Submitted by Brian Robertson on June 8, 2010 - 8:18pm. #

Whew, good questions!  They probably deserve an entire blog post in response, though following are some quick thoughts in the meantime as indirect answers.

The metaphor I find most useful when thinking about these kinds of things is the raising a child one hinted at in the post:  Consider the difference between a parent who projects their own ego/will/desires onto a child and pushes the child to be and become what they want the child to be and become, versus a more healthy parent, one who gets their own stuff out of the way, and instead supports the child in expressing his or her own unique self and purpose, and helps the child be and become what is natural for the child to be and become.  Imagine being each of those parents and consider what it feels like in each case; or imagine watching a parent/child interact whose relationship is defined more by the former and then another pair whose relationship is more often the latter.  Note the different feel of it - you can often experience the difference energetically just watching them interact, even if you don't know them personally.  And it certainly feels different in the first person experience, at least if the parties have regular experiences of the healthier alternative to compare it to.

In organizations, more often than not I see people applying their own "stuff" onto the organization, like the parent in the former example, with an attitude of it being an object - just a collective construct.  Thus I project my own ego/will/desires onto it and seek to meet my ego's desires through it (or not just mine alone but all of our ego's, as is often the case in many consensus-driven cultures).  As you point out though, the organization is experienced and expressed through us, so how do you know the difference?  I'll echo again that I think there is a very big difference. To use our analogy again, you could ask the same about the parent - the parent is a better sensor for the child's needs and telos for many years, so how do you know the difference in your attitude and actions as a parent? I don't think there's an easy answer to this, but just holding the question and asking it regularly is a good part of that answer I think.

One last thought: I say Holacracy is "purpose-driven", but there's a problem with that language.  Purpose generally means something much fuzzier than what I'm trying to express.  Specifically, what we're going for in Holacracy is an evolutionary purpose, or a "teleological purpose".  It's a difference in the "for the sake of" - usually when someone talks about a purpose, there's an implicit idea that the purpose is naturally going to be "for the sake of the people", or "for the sake of humanity", or something like that.  That's not the kind of purpose I'm referring to though.

When I talk about an organization running with Holacracy being "purpose-driven", I'm speaking of a purpose that is simply "for the sake of evolution".  Such a purpose may still be specifically about people (e.g. "Feed the hungry"), which is fine, as long as we're clear that the organizational purpose we're searching for is for the sake of allowing evolution to further unfold and find yet-higher differentiation and integration in reality.  If feeding the hungry is our unique role in allowing that creative unfolding, then great, that sounds good; if we think that's our purpose because we want to feed the hungry though, or because that will make us feel good about ourselves, then we're at risk of mistaking collective ego fulfillment for evolutionary purpose.

Tuning into an evolutionary purpose has a profoundly impersonal feel to it, yet sensing it can trigger a powerful response (though still an impersonal one); in contrast, tuning in to more of a collective-ego-driven purpose has a much more personal, "wet", emotional, "happy" feel to it.  Getting to that can be a good start, but the challenge is then pulling the group's perspective back to a broader evolutionary frame and tuning into the true reason why that's important to evolution, not just to us.  It's a subtle distinction and feeling it out takes a very subtle sense, but one that can be experienced and developed by a group over time.

Hope that helps - these are difficult concepts to convey in writing!  We try to give people a first-hand experience of all this during our trainings, particularly in our 5-day Certification Training, though I hope I've at least captured a little of that experience here.


- Brian

Submitted by Ralf Westphal (not verified) on June 11, 2010 - 5:56am. #


Great to read someone who also sees organizations as "life forms". I even sometimes refer to them as "aliens on earth" ;-) We´re looking for aliens out in space, but there are right here: life forms which we cannot really unterstand, because they are so different from us. They have a fundamentally different consciousness because their very form is so different from us humans and their perception of time is different and much more.

Looking for "little green men" or some alien octopus is still a very anthroprocentric view of the universe. Truely alien life forms probably will be very hard to detect at all. Stanislav Lem described one in "Solaris". And Frank Schätzing in "Swarm" (even though the swarm is living deep down in our oceans).

With organizations, though, we´ve the chance to experience real aliens right here ;-) And even be part of them.

That, to me, is the challenge in shaping this kind of life form. It´s not just an object we can manipulate, but rather something larger than we.

Organizations are on one level of abstraction: the can deal with each other as organizations. That´s like cats dealing with cats.

But then there are the parts of organizations down to us humans. We´re like the cells in a cat or flea.

That´s why it´s hard to "make" an organization to our needs and observe it at the same time. It´s like thinking of cells (or organs) trying to "make" a whole body for their own purpose.

So as you say, we need to see an organization as an individual with its own drive to survive, its own purpose - which is different from our own.

The challenge then is to make the interests of the organization and individual humans´ interests overlap. We need to form a symbiosis, I´d say.


Submitted by Deborah Knox (not verified) on July 15, 2010 - 11:51pm. #


 I have really been seeing and feeling that there are some organizations that have been birthed because existence "wanted them to be here" in a sense--they arose in an organic way--and they will thrive if they are related to and tuned into as such vs. being based on some series of decisions derived from lots of analysis, ego and the imposition of some ideas on the world. I have been coaching some social entrepreneurs this summer through the Unreasonable Institute, and in working with them, I've begun to play with this notion of tapping into or getting informed by the "entity" or the archetype of the organization. I realize this may sound woo-woo, but I think there is something to it. For example,one of the entrepreneurs is working on a fair-trade type of venture, though the offering is much richer and more relational (between producer and purchaser) than that. She needs to start to ask for a lot more from investors to take this to the next level, and I got intuitively that she needed to really tap into feminine, fertile, generative, wild quality of the land from which they were sourcing their products to embody the appropriateness of that level of ask. As I learned later, her logo is the head of a very feminine, powerful , earthy woman, entirely in brown, which was the vibe I was asking her to take on. I digress here a bit, but I find myself more and more interested in helping birth the organizations that "want to" arise and creating the conditions in which they can emerge and flourish as living "beings" vs. following some textbook checklist.



Submitted by Jones Kortz (not verified) on August 29, 2010 - 11:31am. #

Dear Brian,

I´m one of the co-founders of a community in Germany, that is existing now for 7 years. One of our main principles of decision making is, to get the egos out of the way and listen to the "impulse" of the project. I consider our project to be an entity of itself, similar to the way, you describe the evolution powered organization. In fact almost all of the people that started out in the beginning have left and new people have come, but still the "soul" of the project remains for my sense. What I´m asking myself is, what exactly is the body of this life form? How did it come to existence? Was its birth the moment, we decided to start, or when we bought the place? Will it die, when we leave our activity as a community and sell the property? Or will it remain and go on functioning with the new owners?

The thought "I am" is creating "I entitys" and thus "Identities". How can an organizational entity realize this "I am" ? Is it using the human capacity as a channel and how does it remain, when all leave and new people come?

During my years living in communities I had strong moments of transpersonal expierences while taking group decisions but still these questions remain unanswered to me. Do you have any comments on that?


Submitted by Brian Robertson on September 2, 2010 - 7:59pm. #

Thanks for the comments all!

Jones - I do have some thoughts there, probably too many to share in this forum, though perhaps I can hit on some of them in a future blog post.  In the meantime, here's one overarching thought, specifically about your comment:

How can an organizational entity realize this "I am" ? Is it using the human capacity as a channel and how does it remain, when all leave and new people come?

I think it can use human capacity as a channel to some degree, though that's not the approach I generally take or advise.  As you point out, it is difficult to sustain this capacity if we rely only on the heroics of some initial group to get there, and it will always be limited by those people and their own egos and attachments, however wise or evolved they may be.

The approach Holacracy takes to get there is via an organizational structure and process that manifests and sustains this capacity organizationally, even if the individuals involved aren't fully capable of getting it there themselves.  Once you have this capacity "baked in" to the core processes of the organization, you no longer need to rely on heroic leaders to sustain it.  And you get an awake organization, which is not at all the same thing as an awake group of humans working together; the latter is often useful too, though I think the true leading-edge of evolution and of what's needed in the world today is awake organizations...

You can find a bit more about this in the Holacracy article available on our website, under "About Holacracy" in the nav-bar.

Hope that helps,

- Brian

Submitted by peter rohmer (not verified) on February 4, 2011 - 7:05am. #

Dear Brian,


I like your blog and believe you're spot on when you say that we need to go to a next level concerning our reasons to manifest reality and create in the world. Maybe we can even go beyond what you are proposing. I wrote a little something that i would like to share as it seems to relate to what you wrote:

Just because

Some people work to earn a paycheck, so they can buy food, a car and other stuff in order to fulfill their physical needs. Some people work because they need a challenge or want to develop themselves so they can fulfill their emotional needs. Some have a mission and are motivated by helping others or creating a better world, it makes them feel good and worthwhile.

There is nothing wrong with having a reason to act, or having believes about why we act. However, in the final analysis our reasons are merely ‘justifications’, as the causal point of anything created is energy.

Does the sun need a reason to shine? Will he be pissed of when clouds are in its way?

When we are closely connected to our inner core we show up in the world and shine …… just because.


I believe that the more individuals are connected to their core, companies will go to a next level of creating in the world and that we start realizing that the way we are creating now is taking us into a dead end street.


Thanks for sharing your insights


Submitted by Brian Robertson on February 4, 2011 - 12:15pm. #

Beautiful Peter, thanks for sharing that!

Submitted by Christiane (not verified) on November 27, 2011 - 2:45pm. #

Hi Brian,
I have just received a message from a friend in Seattle as a reaction to the link I posted on FB. I am pasting the message here and it would be great if you had time to sahre your thoughts on her comments. So here it is:

While I find the Holacracy fascinating, I'm stuck on something he said at the beginning: "This paradigm is a major leap forward from the preceding view, which looks something like “the organization exists to maintain the organization and its status-quo” – picture the stereotypical bureaucratic, inward-focused government agency and you’ll get the idea." It seems, at least in this article, government is dismissed as nothing but self-serving. At its worst this can be true, but with profit removed there can be a value to it that is not unlike the holacracy. This is of course not common but also not impossible. It would take real leadership. But I was disappointed in the dismissal of government right off the bat.“ ... end of quote

I will be happy to guide her to your answer and maybe then she will become a regular visitor here :)

Thanks and all the best,


Submitted by Brian Robertson on November 27, 2011 - 3:44pm. #

Hi Christiane,

Well, it certainly wasn't my intention to imply all government organizations are like that, and I made no such assertion in the post; I suspect there are government agencies operating from each of these paradigms.  My intent was simply to point to a stereotype many people are familiar with in order to conjure up a sense of what I was trying to make a distinction around, and that distinction is one that can apply to any type of organization.  It was not my intent to speak to the truth of that stereotype one way or the other, nor to dismiss government outright - in fact I called out the image I was trying to convey as a stereotype to make a point that it is just that: a stereotype.

Of course many stereotypes have a seed of truth within, and I think the seed of truth in that one is that government agencies generally have more potential to rest in that earlier paradigm than private companies, which are often killed by evolutionary market forces if they stay there for long.  That said, some private companies still manage it, and many government agencies and teams do manage to move past it; I agree with your friend that any broad generalizations here wouldn't be all that accurate or useful.

Hope that clarifies,

- Brian

Submitted by cs on November 27, 2011 - 4:26pm. #

Wow, that was quick! Thank you!!

Submitted by Martin Dyckhoff (not verified) on June 16, 2014 - 4:53am. #

Love the idea of transcending a model of negotiated and hierarchical realisation of self-interests. Great ideal to aspire to. Links into the idea of the organisation being bigger than the individual and worth serving and giving chunks of your life to which we know to be important and a real motivator.

However the idea of evolutionary purpose seems to be a straight contradiction in terms. Isn't the whole principle of evolution randomly coming across an evolutionary niche (whatever size that turns out to be) and moving into it for competitive advantage?

If you want a transcendent principle to unite  and organise people, using evolutionary principles seems an unlikely source. Social Darwinism does not have a good track record as far as I can make out... Think the structure may be great, but the basic thought infrastructure is looking a little shaky. It might be worth revisiting the source of implied generosity of spirit in setting a creation free...


Submitted by Chris Cowan on June 20, 2014 - 8:12am. #

Hey Martin, 

Talk about bringing up an old thread! Awesome! To me, it is the difference between "to make" and "to grow." The old paradigm, whether shareholder or stakeholder, is still about how "to make" an organization....how to create it...design it...modify it. The new paradigm is more about how "to grow" an organization...how to steward it....cultivate it....etc.

Or maybe , the difference between a sculptor and a topiarist. One uses inorganic material and the other uses organic. It's more about how we define "the matter" of an organization...what kind of stuff is it made of. Too often we think organizations as extensions of our own minds...things we created rather than things that have an evolutionary purpose of their own. Just my .02. 

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.