Understanding Structure and Hierarchy in the Gulen Movement – 1

The diverse organizations it consists of are loosely and informally connected through the volunteers’ shared ideals and principles and that it achieves remarkable outputs through the inputs of self-motivated individuals.

The Gülen Movement, also known as Hizmet (service), is a social movement inspired by the Turkish Islamic scholar and peace activist Fethullah Gülen. It began in Turkey in the 1970’s and operates principally in education, dialogue, media and relief work. It has founded over a thousand schools; even more dialogue organisations; clinics; media outlets; humanitarian aid and other charitable NGOs in over a 130 countries worlwide. By all measures, the Movement is big, extensive, dynamic and successful. For many this means that it must be centrally organized and hierarchically structured — that is, it must be top-down with clear chains of command, various layers of operating systems with the necessary checks and balances that entails. The assumption is based on our everyday experience of getting things done (and fnding that the bigger the task the harder and more complex the organisational effort it requires) and on our knowledge of small and large organisations. The assumption is that large entities must have elaborate hierarchical structures and systems to even exist let alone achieve their goals.

But Fethullah Gülen himself and Gülen-inspired organizations and its volunteers have consistently denied that the Movement has any chain of command, central leadership or hierarchical structure. It claims that the diverse organizations it consists of are loosely and informally connected through the volunteers’ shared ideals and principles and that it achieves remarkable outputs through the inputs of self-motivated individuals. The problem with this account is that it does not conform to our preconceptions and day–to-day experiences in life. The reaction is then to suppose that ‘by denying it the Movement must in fact be hiding its structure.’ Most people do not find it conceivable that perhaps the Movement is telling the truth about itself and that it is our assumptions and preconceptions that are at fault. This is where I think looking at another example might help us see beyond those assumptions and preconceptions. The example I have in mind in Gore Inc.

Gore Inc. (full name W. L. Gore & Associates) was founded in 1958 by Bill and Vieve Gore. It is a privately-held multi-billion high-tech company headquartered in Newark, Delaware, USA. It manufactures and markets more than 1,000 products ranging from heart patches, synthetic blood vessels and fabric laminates to plastic-coated acoustic guitar strings. It currently has 9,000 employees located in 30 countries worldwide, with manufacturing facilities in the United States, Germany, Scotland, Japan, and China, and sales offices around the world. Its annual revenues are $2.5 billion.

Gore Inc. is a legally registered and incorporated entity and (unlike the Gülen Movement) its fundamental objective, like any non-charitable company, is to make profit. As such, we would expect Gore Inc. to have in place a strict, formal hierarchical structure to manage its $2.5 billion revenues, 9,000 staff located in over 30 countries, plants and offices across the world and its highly specialized and sensitive product manufacturing capability, not to mention the logistics of complex supply and distribution chains and schedules and all that is enatiled by its business. Actually it does not. It operates as a flat-lattice organization, which is non-hierarchical, has no bosses, no job titles, no fixed or assigned authority, no chains of command, no organizational charts and no predetermined channels of communication.

Bill Gore, co-founder of Gore Inc. and creator of the lattice organisation describes it as follows:

A lattice organization is one that involves direct transactions, self-commitment, natural leadership, and lacks assigned or assumed authority… Every successful organization has a lattice organization that underlies the façade of authoritarian hierarchy. It is through these lattice organizations that things get done, and most of us delight in going aroundthe formal procedures and doing things the straightforward and easy way.

The model which has evolved over the years as the company has grown is described by the company’s website as a:

[N]onhierarchical system based on interconnection among associates, [which] is free from traditional bosses and managers. There is no assigned authority, and we become leaders based on our ability to gain the respect of our peers and to attract followers.

With Gore’s lattice organisation there are no employees; instead everyone who works for the company is called an associate. There are no bosses or managers; instead there are sponsors (mentors) and naturally-emerging leaders who earn credibility and a following among colleagues. There are no formal structures; instead there is person-to-person communication with no intermediaries, small enough plants for people to know one another and dynamic and need-based team formation and dissolution. Objectives are set by the same people who are charged with making them happen and tasks are organized through a system of commitments.

Sponsors (who are also associates) engage in a one-on-one relationship and focus on the development and growth of the associate. The sponsor’s role is to be able to help the associate find opportunities within the company and business. Leaders (who are also associates) on the other hand focus on business objectives, co-ordinate activities and align teams to meet goals. A leader is an associate who is recognized by his or her team as having special knowledge or experience and is looked upon by the team for co-ordination to achieve agreed goals. In an internal memo Bill Gore explains that “Don’t assign leadership, let it emerge. The best leadership today is earned from those being led. Don’t let managers rely on the power of their positions, authority, or fear, to get work done when they manage others.”

Malcolm Gladwell argues in his international bestseller, The Tipping Point (2000), that Gore Inc. is able to run a big company as if it were a small entrepenuarial set-up by limiting the number of associates at any one plant to roughly 150 (although since Gladwell’s book the number at some plants is said to have gone up). Gladwell explains that that is the largest number of people in a group who could come to know one another sufficiently well to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Work is achieved more naturally as people know who is best at doing whatever is required for the given task(s) in hand without the need for elaborate structures. Any issues are resolved directly as and when they arise. The small group intimacy and affiliation also creates peer pressure to succeed.

This flat, bottom-up lattice-style management structure in business and commerce is not something completely unheard of. Although Gore Inc. is perhaps an exception in that it is a multi-billion dollar company that adopted this model from inception, the example is nonetheless spreading and the topic of self-management or supermanagement is being discussed among scholars and in popular publications.

If a large multi-billion high-tech international company can operate very successfully as a lattice organization, then surely a socially oriented non-profit movement can operate much more easily in that way, that is, without the usual chains of command and formal hierarchical structuring. Such a movement is by its very nature and purpose far more suited to a loose, organic and natural modus operandi. I am not saying that the Gore Inc. structure illustrates excatly how the Gülen Movement operates. But I am syaing that the widespread and, in this case, misleading preconception that such a large, extensive, consistent and focused movement must have a chain of command, top-down leadership system and a hierarchical structure does not necessarily apply. Those who are genuinely trying to understand this Movement must concede that it is possible that the Movement operates on a different model and paradigm than that which we expect – just as in the case of Gore Inc. And for those who are willing to concede this point and approach the issue without preconceptions, I will attempt to explain how the Gülen Movement does operate in my nextpost.

© 2017 Centre for Hizmet Studies