top of page

The Power of Voluntary Cooperation

by Ann K. Brea and Mark Burgess

Leadership is a huge topic. It’s how we get from a world of ad hoc outcomes to one with verifiable desired outcomes — and at the scale of an organization or even a country! How to begin? Some dwell on human qualities, but what if there were a deeper angle, which wasn’t about skilled individuals at all, but rather about how groups cooperate?

Scaling a business is probably the first cliché you’ll hear as an entrepreneur. Even before we get to the politics of business, and its varied personality types, we need to think about how we scale cooperation — from lending a helping hand to orchestrating complex processes between ordinary individuals. Getting people to work together isn’t as straightforward as it seems. And how it scales is a subtle story.

Terms like authority, legitimacy of decision-rights, and other ideas pop up, as if you could stake a claim on leadership. Some individuals do try, if not by competence then by charisma. But there’s something deeper going on in cooperation— something that concerns relationships between individuals over time more the individuals. The question of securing the “rights” to lead is a complex issue and actually something of a red herring — because even if you have somehow procured those rights, it doesn’t guarantee willing cooperation. Trust, after all, is not cheap.


There’s a simple case that illustrates these points nicely: music.

Music is an activity where skilled individuals come together to cooperate in the production of something that none of them could do alone. Musicians have to promise cooperation in space, in time, in role, and in listening to each other for mood and phrasing — otherwise the result could be disastrous. Disrespect musicians, and you won’t get them to put on your show. They have to give their time, their skill, and their feeling to the outcome.

Even when musicians use modern studio techniques to multitrack music (playing all of the instruments by themselves) they have to take on different aspects of the composition, yielding the absolute “right” (self-granted) to act individually and ad hoc for each voice in turn. In other words, they have to suppress different skills and desires, and emphasize different promises to coordinate the final result. That’s creativity.

There’s a time and a place for everything, just not in a composition. Otherwise music and art would be indulgent chaos. Sometimes improvisation works, but rarely at scale. In music, the goal is to submit oneself to a collective performance.


Of course, playing with a handful of musicians is very different from playing in a 2