06/15/2012 10:51 am ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

Democracy Is Inevitable: Why Warren's Way Still Works

Hierarchies were the assumed order of organizational life, until people such as Warren Bennis made an unusual discovery more than a half-century ago: Democracy matters.

Democracy matters, not just for great nations, but for great organizations of any kind. Democracy matters, not simply because it's a noble idea, but because it's more ruthlessly effective than any hierarchy, autocracy, oligarchy or technocracy could hope to be over the long term.

Before Bennis became a bestselling author, a distinguished university professor at USC and the most in-demand management consultant and leadership guru of the past generation, he was a social scientist at places such as MIT, where he conducted landmark studies on how democratic groups compared with hierarchical groups in performing a variety of tasks.

The results were startling at the time. Hierarchies were the way to go if the task was a simple one that could be led by a single decisive authority. But the strong leader, no matter how gifted, was less effective at leading a team through complex tasks. As ambiguity increased, the democratic teams -- which shared information and authority -- ran circles around hierarchies.

Just as importantly, the democratic teams reported widespread engagement among their members. The only engaged persons on the hierarchical teams were the privileged ones perched atop their hierarchies. But that was a mixed blessing, as their positions grew shaky as the complexity of the tasks increased.

It became clear to Bennis and his circle of colleagues that democracies were the social organisms most imbued with the ability to adapt to uncertainty. Democracies benefited uniquely from the aggregate perspectives and experiences and wisdom of everyone within a group. An organizational movement was birthed, and pyramids would be flattened, from corporations to nonprofits to schools.

In 1964, Bennis, with collaborator Philip Slater, authored a Harvard Business Review piece predicting that theUnited States would emerge as the victor in its rivalry with the Soviet Union -- not through missile launches, but through the natural superiority of democratic processes over autocratic ones. For decades, the USSR maintained a façade of competence, while internally it decayed until Bennis' theory was quietly vindicated.

Bennis, 87 and still energetic, notices now what he noticed in 1964: a humility on the part of democratic societies that often slides over into a neurotic sense of impending doom. Americans in 1964 worried that the stern Soviets could command their society with greater precision -- just as American pundits now brood about how Chinese leaders can erect a gleaming skyscraper more quickly than we can get around to fixing a subway escalator.

That humility is not all bad in Bennis' mind, however: it reflects democracy's healthy sense of its short-term limitations. The dictatorships that can never doubt their own potency tend to drive off a cliff once the road curves, as it always does.

Americans retain a secret envy of the undemocratic world. As a longtime collaborator with Bennis, I led a seminar on his collaborative governance research a few months ago with top young LA executives. These executives, who were fellows in a program promoting democratic governance, were finding democracy easier to love than to practice.

China was more efficient and more effective than the United States, many of the fellows insisted to me. One woman argued that urgent matters such as global warming could only be addressed by czars rather than by bickering and selfish voters.

I asked them why they placed so much confidence in the Chinese government's ability to run the sort of society that they would want. They struggled to offer a coherent response, but I could tell that their underlying frustration was the epiphany that democracy wasn't a magical way for each of them to get what he or she wanted.

Their frustration reminded me of words from Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: "Democracy is like a streetcar that you take to your destination, then you get off." Or more accurately, it's like a streetcar that you take only as long as you believe it will get you to your destination, otherwise you hop off.

Democracy is a conundrum. It is no coincidence that it sprang up in Athenian and American societies that championed the power of human reason; yet our best neuroscientists and economists now concede that humanity has strong biases toward irrationality.

Democracy is, indeed, not a magical way for each stakeholder to get what he or she wants or needs; yet, to paraphrase Churchill, it is more effective than any other way in giving each person what he or she wants or needs, as those wants and needs evolve over the long haul. That is why democracy remains more sustainable and more adaptable than any other way.

Bennis' proposed title for his 1964 HBR piece was emphatic: "Democracy Is Inevitable." The HBR editors found such confidence to be preposterous and softened it to an inquisitive, "Is Democracy Inevitable?"

Encouraged by history, Bennis is working on a new book on democracy's future. "Democracy's inevitability remains the premise," he says, "but I see an emphasis profoundly different than that of Fukuyama's End of History, which insisted that liberal, free-market democracies, such as our own and most of the European Union nations, have reached the evolutionary goal line."

Bennis has been making sense of democracy's next steps in light of the Arab Spring, globalization of marketplaces and organizations and the delicate state of the European Union. "I plan to make an even stronger case for democratic governance," he says, "but with an understanding of how we must protect and guard against the flaws and exigencies that inhere in an un-watchful democratic enterprise."

Democracy may be in an awkward adolescence within our states and our organizations, an adolescence that Bennis continues to illuminate and shape. It takes heart and courage to survive adolescence, and it takes scholar-practitioners such as Bennis to help us understand that the process and the journey are well worth the effort.