Kingdoms and bureaucrats – How the corporate life cycle mirrors the rise and fall of civilizations

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Harnessing the power of synergy in uncertain times
Photo by Leon on Unsplash

Organizations are the microcosms of civilizations. They refelct the cultural milieu, for better or worse. In his book, Barbarians to bureaucrats: Corporate life cycle strategies - Lessons from the rise and fall of civilizations, organizational consultant Lawrence M. Miller describes the process by which all human institutions, from businesses to civilizations, progress through distinct stages of a life cycle, with each separate stage demanding different skills and emphasizing different aspects of leadership.

According to the author, the stages of an organizations's life cycle include:

1) Stage I: The Prophet: Inspiration and Innovation

2) Stage II: The Barbarian: Crisis and Conquest

3) Stage III: The Builder and Explorer: Specialization and Expansion

4) Stage IV: The Administrator: Systems, Structure and Security

5) Stage V: The Bureaucrat: The Tight Grip of Control

Continuing the analogy, Miller describes how organizations follow a life cycle of growth, development and decay. He challenges leaders to break the natural cycle by developing creative means to coordinate human and organizational energies to retain vitality and innovation. Miller describes the successful leader as a synergist – “one who has escaped his or her own conditioned tendency toward one style and has incorporated the different styles of leadership that are needed as the corporation goes through its life cycle” (p.167). He further characterizes the synergistic leader as focused on global, process-oriented thinking as opposed to the traditional local, process-oriented thinking and calls for cooperation and coordination within and among specialized work groups. Miller concludes that the growth of the new global economy with its increasing size, complexity and interdependence will require the comprehensive vision of synergistic leaders.

While this book uses the unique analogy of the life cycle, its content reflects several common themes repeated often in the current literature. Specifically, it emphasizes the need for organizations to be flexible and adaptive in order to respond to the rapidly changing global environment. Without using the terms “situational” and “transformational” leadership Miller’s perspective encompasses the fundamental aspects of these constructs and proposes the insightful application of their managerial principles. Additionally, it repeats the theme of synergy as a powerful element in the daily operation of organizations.

Tapping the potential of synergy may quite possibly be one of the most effective leadership methods in existence. Creatively and competently utilizing the combined energies of individuals working together can often lead an organization well beyond its purported goals. The leadership mindset of considering organizations in this light combined with a global perspective will carry an institution into the future.
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Despite being written three decades ago, the themes predominant in this book have particular importance for our current organizations and the larger society as we seek to serve an increasingly divergent population in an uncertain future. Given the high degree of diversity among professionals in the modern workplace, there is a tremendous potential for an organization to not only adapt to, but to become forerunners in, the emerging global world perspective. Furthermore, this diversity can contribute to the realm of possibilities when the synergy of the group is potentiated.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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