Joy at Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job

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By Dennis W. Bakke
PVG, 2005
336 pages, $24.95

Joy at Work is the passionate autobiography of Dennis Bakke, former CEO of the global energy company AES. Until the energy industry was shaken up by the collapse of Enron, AES had been something of a corporate “poster company” for management writers — a company with a unique values-driven management style that had stellar financial results. Alas, such companies have the nasty habit of imploding just as their hagiographies are being written, and AES was no exception. It was sucked into the downdraft created by the Enron debacle; the stock price is still at levels last seen in the early 1990s.

Mr. Bakke makes clear, however, that his views on the role of values in management are independent of the corporation’s stock price. The benefits of his approach, he argues, accrue to the community as a whole, not necessarily to the organization that practices them. The values he espouses are those of servant leadership — humility, courage, love, passion, and integrity. They spring from his deep Christian convictions, but he makes a powerful argument, supported by the responses of AES employees around the world, that these are in fact universal human values. For management, the implication of this approach is a radical decentralization of decision making accompanied by the wide distribution of the information necessary for workers to make sound decisions at the lowest possible levels of the organization. Mr. Bakke’s ideal model is that of the self-regulating beehive, where individuals behave adaptively without reference to any central authority.

The challenge of living one’s values in every context is that it can make for rocky relationships with more pragmatic people, especially when the going gets rough. Every time AES suffered a setback, Mr. Bakke had to deal with directors and commentators who argued that it was the decentralized management approach that was responsible for the problems. In this respect, it would have been interesting to hear more about his working relationship with Roger Sant, with whom he cofounded AES in 1982. In the aftermath of Enron’s collapse, Mr. Bakke makes a spirited defense of his approach at AES, contending that it was three specific strategic decisions, not his management philosophy, that aggravated the company’s troubles. But, whatever the reasons, the “100-year flood” (his characterization of AES’s difficulties) cost him the confidence of his board and led to Mr. Bakke’s decision to retire from AES. Some might say he was a martyr for his cause.

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