The Medici Effect and Leadership Toward a Polycentric Form of Leadership

Written by
Joseph Handley
Published on
July 11, 2024

We live in an era of constant change and uncertainty. Countless companies have given up on making long term plans and, instead, work only within a three-year horizon. The speed of technological development, geopolitical changes, and rapidly evolving markets all fuel this trend. However, it would be too easy to give up hope, assume the future is unpredictable, and simply become reactive.

Though we may not be able to foresee every development, we have never been better positioned to shape our future. We live in an era where exciting challenges and compelling visions can attract a vast amount of talent and resources, where organizations can scale from a single individual with a laptop to hundreds or thousands of workers within a few years.

The teams that thrive in this environment, however, are quite different from the old hierarchical model. They face multiple overlapping demands and require not a single leader but a multitude of leaders working together.

This article explores a new approach for teams and organizations to thrive in a constantly changing and uncertain world. While many companies have given up on making long term plans, this approach encourages teams to create their own path to success by reflecting on their capabilities and unleashing the potential of their people. This is not about adopting an off-the-shelf model, but rather understanding specific situations and evolving as teams and individuals. The approach is called Polycentric Leadership and it enables teams to create value in the short term while also experimenting, innovating, and becoming more efficient over time.

The Medici Effect

The Medici family brought together artists, scholars, and thinkers from different fields, creating an environment that fostered creativity and innovation. In the Medici Effect, Frans Johansson argues that the principles employed by the Medici family can be applied to innovation in business and other fields. He suggests that innovation occurs at the intersection of different fields and that bringing together people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives can lead to breakthroughs and new ideas.

This approach to collaboration inspired us to pursue a different form of leadership, one that draws from a variety of perspectives, a diversity of talent, and a pull from every corner of a company and its culture. The more complex--and especially global--the company, the more this approach can strengthen the overall quality of the product, happiness of employees and ultimately altogether better service. We call this form of leadership Polycentric Leadership.

In my (Joe’s) research I defined Polycentric Leadership as a ‘collaborative, communal leadership empowering multiple centers of influence and a diverse array of leaders.’[1] After reviewing a wide array of literature (including polycentric governance and the GLOBE Study of CEOs), I identified six key traits or themes that constitute this leadership style.

We will unpack these themes later in the article. For now, we will focus on what sparked this interest in a Medici approach by relaying two case studies that showcase some of the limitations of a traditional hierarchical leadership model. They come from Daniel’s previous experiences working as a chef at Hof Van Cleve and in R&D at the Fat Duck Group.

Case Studies of Frustration

Hof Van Cleve


Working at the renowned restaurant Hof Van Cleve was no ordinary experience. Ranked #16 in the world at the time, this elite establishment demanded unwavering dedication and precision from its team members. In this journal entry, we explore the highs and lows of being part of this culinary masterpiece, highlighting the unique culture, challenges, and the lessons learned.

The Demanding World of Culinary Excellence:

At Hof Van Cleve, the pursuit of perfection began early in the morning and lasted for 15-18 grueling hours each day. The tasks were meticulous, requiring speed, attention to detail, and unwavering precision. From removing seaweed from mussels and clams to preparing 18 intricate courses, the team pushed themselves to their limits to create an unforgettable dining experience.

A Culture of Excellence and Sacrifice:

Despite the long hours, meager pay, and physical challenges, the team members at Hof Van Cleve found pride and camaraderie in their shared sacrifices. They formed an elite unit, working together to create beauty where others faltered. The competitive environment fostered a deep sense of teamwork, ensuring that each dish delivered to the customer was flawless. However, the culture was not without its downsides.

The Dysfunction Beneath the Surface:

Behind the romanticized facade of passion and creativity, Hof Van Cleve harbored a severely dysfunctional environment. The long hours and intense pressure took a toll on the team members, resulting in burnout and high turnover. Newcomers struggled to integrate, and the absence of a resilient operation meant that the customer experience hung on the precipice of a single overworked cook's performance.

The Role of Leadership:

The second in command, the sous-chef, played a critical role in maintaining the restaurant's performance. While the head chef and owner were often absent, the sous-chef toiled in the trenches, providing heroic leadership. However, the departure of the sous-chef and the subsequent loss of key team members revealed the vulnerability of relying solely on one person's leadership.

Lessons Learned and Moving Forward:

Working at Hof Van Cleve proved to be a formative experience for the author, inspiring them to pursue their own ventures. However, the most memorable lesson was the importance of giving due credit and supporting the team. In a system where only the boss had creative freedom, others felt like glorified assembly line workers. This imbalance raised the question of how to empower more leaders within the creative process.

A New Chapter: Joining a Different Operation:

Armed with the invaluable perspective gained from their time at Hof Van Cleve, the author moved to the UK and embarked on a new professional journey. The stark contrast in the work environment allowed them to appreciate the importance of a balanced and supportive workplace culture, where creativity and leadership are encouraged at all levels.


The tale of working at Hof Van Cleve encapsulates the paradoxical nature of striving for excellence in a high-pressure setting. While the pursuit of culinary perfection can foster a sense of camaraderie, it also poses challenges that can lead to dysfunction. As businesses in various industries aim for greatness, this story serves as a reminder to foster a supportive and resilient environment that values the contributions of every team member.

The Fat Duck Group

The Fat Duck Group, renowned for its award-winning restaurant and diverse business units, boasts a vibrant research and development (R&D) team at its core. This article recounts the journey of the R&D team and highlights their innovative approach to problem-solving, adaptability in the face of challenges, and the pursuit of continuous improvement.

The Shift in Leadership:

When a major fallout between the company founder and the head of R&D led to the dismemberment of the team, one member found themselves as the sole survivor. This unexpected turn of events provided an opportunity to shape the team's processes and foster a culture of experimentation and improvement. Drawing inspiration from Design Thinking, Lean, and Agile methodologies, the team sought to redefine their approach.

Navigating Conflicting Values:

The clash between the team's efficiency-focused mindset and the founder's perfectionism initially led to frustration and miscommunication. Recognizing the value of the founder's time, the team embraced his perfectionism, despite the associated inefficiencies. They learned to invest more time in developing multiple components to avoid potential delays and garnered Heston's trust and support.

Embracing Minimum Viable Products:

Implementing the concept of minimum viable products (MVPs) allowed the team to test early alignment with the founder, Heston. While this approach worked well with other business units, it required adaptation to accommodate Heston's preference for exploring every possibility and achieving perfection. Through trial and error, the team found a balance that improved efficiency and gained Heston's trust.

Database Restructuring for Collaboration:

Recognizing the potential for synergy and knowledge-sharing within the team, the R&D member restructured the database into a library of modular preparations. Although some resistance was initially encountered, particularly from the development patissiers who were hesitant to share their precious recipes, the benefits of collaboration eventually became evident and led to a more cohesive team.

Challenges with Authority and Alignment:

As the team focused on implementing approved products, tensions arose with other units, and Heston's role as the ultimate quality control became a bottleneck. To address this, the team advocated for restructuring the company, leading to the formation of a creative board comprising the innovation team, business unit heads, key outsiders, and Heston himself. However, internal political barriers and hierarchical conflicts hindered the board's effectiveness.

The Journey to Reinvention:

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of The Fat Duck, the restaurant temporarily moved to Melbourne, presenting an opportunity to reimagine the dining experience. The team recognized the need for a powerful vision and delved into the core philosophies of perfectionism, nostalgia, and storytelling. Leveraging collaborations and unique insights, they aimed to create a new, innovative Fat Duck experience.

Empowering Innovation from Within:

In their pursuit of groundbreaking ideas, the team adopted a bottom-up approach, actively seeking input and ideas from various stakeholders. A chance encounter with an intern's presentation on fiction genres led to a deeper exploration of narrative theory and its impact on the dining experience. This discovery sparked a new vision, which they worked tirelessly to translate into a concrete experience.

Overcoming Setbacks:

Despite their dedication and hard work, the team faced setbacks and encountered resistance from senior managers, resulting in compromises on their original concept. These challenges highlighted the need for stakeholder management and a better way to empower employees' ideas and potential.

A Wider Perspective:

The team's experiences at The Fat Duck Group resonated with professionals from various industries who shared similar frustrations with dysfunctional organizational cultures. The quest for a better way of working, distribution of power, and improved collaboration became a shared goal for many.


The journey of The Fat Duck Group's R&D team exemplifies the power of adaptation, innovation, and embracing challenges. Through a balance of efficiency and perfectionism, collaboration, and continuous improvement, they transformed their processes and achieved remarkable outcomes. Their experiences serve as an inspiration for organizations seeking to foster innovation and overcome organizational barriers to success.

Lessons Learned

At Hof Van Cleve we had chosen to work there of our own free will. We enjoyed the complexities and speed of the work and took pride in delivering something beautiful. We felt like an elite army, standing side by side in the trenches. We ticked all the boxes for autonomy, competence, and relatedness with the team. However, the boss frequently let down his second in command, creating a divide. He left when the opportunity arose, taking some team members with him.

At the Fat Duck Group, creating mind blowing experiences for the customers was a cause that brought everyone together. People flocked from across the globe to ask for a job. There was a strong sense of belonging to something greater than oneself, of craftsmanship and mastery, and of willingly sacrificing a more comfortable life in the pursuit of greatness.

But then, over the course of a couple years, things started to feel different. Once the job no longer sparked curiosity, once they no longer valued their tasks as an opportunity to learn, and once seeing their intricate creations no longer brought them joy, their motivation changed.

Staff needed to stay for two years to receive a recommendation, causing some to feel coerced. They became focused on promotions, raises, and new jobs, which bred politics and toxicity. Senior staff humiliated others, contaminating newcomers. Passion was replaced by cynicism as discussions about food gave way to office politics.

The Dilemmas of Dysfunction

According to a global survey of companies, 63% of people are not engaged at work. They show up every day in appearance, but their attention is somewhere else. They don’t care about their work. They don’t care about the outcomes.

Even worse, there are further 17% who do care, but not in a good way. They are so frustrated with work that they actively try to sabotage it. They lie, cheat, steal and break things, pretend to do work they are not doing, and actively try to discourage others from working.[2]

According to another piece of research, “low-level engagement within companies results in a 33 percent decrease in operating income and an 11 percent decrease in earnings growth, whereas companies with high-level engagement have a 19 percent increase in operating income and a 28 percent increase in earnings growth.” What a gigantic waste of potential!

Imagine how much better life could be if people could redirect the attention put in company politics towards their actual work, if passion wasn’t systematically turned into cynicism.

A Ray of Hope:  Autonomous Motivation

One key factor is what is called Autonomous Motivation [3]. It refers to those cases when you have a full sense of interest and enjoyment, and place value on the activity itself. It is the kind of motivation that powered the team at Hof Van Cleve to work under intense pressure for up to 18 hours a day, 5 days a week, and do it gladly.

In empirical research, it has been found that autonomously motivated employees suffer less stress in high pressure situations [4], less burnout [5], absenteeism, emotional exhaustion, and turnover intentions [6]. Moreover, autonomously motivated employees are more satisfied at work [7] and share more knowledge with their co-workers [8].

Autonomous Motivation depends on the satisfaction of the three psychological needs - autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy refers to having decided to partake in the task at hand (instead of being coerced by the circumstances). Competence refers to feeling capable of accomplishing the task (having the necessary skills and not feeling overwhelmed). And Relatedness refers to the feelings of warmth and belonging towards the people involved in the task or its impact.

In hopes of building Autonomous Motivation into the employment-team experience, I (Daniel) have come across a new theory that could provide an empowering alternative to the dysfunction that permeates so many work environments:  Polycentric Leadership.

Toward a New Paradigm of Leadership

Polycentric leadership is a leadership style that emphasizes decentralized decision-making and the distribution of power and authority across multiple centers of leadership. This approach to leadership is based on the idea that no single person or group has a monopoly on knowledge or expertise, and that decision-making is more effective when it is distributed among multiple stakeholders.

Polycentric leadership is often seen in complex organizations or environments where there are multiple stakeholders, some even with competing interests. In such environments, it can be difficult for a single leader or group to make decisions that satisfy everyone's needs.

In Joe’s research [9], these ideas are expressed through themes he discovered in reviewing leadership theory [10], the GLOBE Study [11] and Polycentric Governance [12]. These ideas were tested through interviews with a diverse array of global leaders and refined through the lens of Peter Norhouse’s methodology of assessing leadership theory.

Through this research, Joe identified six key traits of Polycentric Leadership:

1. Charismatic

Charisma involves more spiritual or holistic depth and the corresponding character qualities. Rather than the popular sense of charismatic leadership, trustworthy, ethical behavior is more appreciated than a winsome personality or dynamic presence.[13]

2. Collaborative

A collaborative leader works with her colleagues as a team [14], in a shared and participatory manner. Everyone works as equal partners, pulling out the best in one another, seeking to accomplish the organizations’ goals and objectives. When organizations work together to achieve a common vision, they enhance the capacity to realize their shared purpose.[15]

Peter Senge describes systems leaders as having the

ability to see reality through the eyes of people very different from themselves…. They build relationships based on deep listening, and networks of trust and collaboration start to flourish. They are so convinced that something can be done that they do not wait for a fully developed plan, thereby freeing others to step ahead and learn by doing. Indeed, one of their greatest contributions can come from the strength of their ignorance, which gives them permission to ask obvious questions and to embody an openness and commitment to their own ongoing learning and growth that eventually infuse larger change efforts (Senge et al. 2015, 3-4).

3. Communal

One of the strongest components of Polycentric Leadership that I have observed over the past five years in Japan is the communal nature of Japanese leadership. We become stronger as a team because we exhibit leadership that fosters a rich sense of community. In Asia, I’ve seen the collective prove more resilient during times of crisis than the individualistic model.

Brook Manville highlights that a community becomes even more pertinent than the network:

A big goal requires a ‘thick we network—a community of people who feel responsible for collaborating toward a shared purpose that they see as superseding their individual needs. Members of a community—as opposed to a simple network—expect relationships within the group to continue, and they even hold one another accountable for effort and performance. When networks develop into communities, the results can be powerful (Manville HBR 2014).

4. Relational

Recently, a friend asked me, “How do you gain so much favor with the leaders that you know? They clearly trust you.” I benefited from the help of a Japanese colleague who took me to visit many of these same friends. He displayed the importance of building relational capital. Trust is so important in our polarized world; the best way to build trust is to spend time with your co-workers and clients, getting to know them and if possible, their families. The deeper you go in relationship, the stronger your leadership will be.

Wei-Skillern, Ehrlichman, and Sawyer capture this stating,

Rather than leading with a top-down approach, network entrepreneurs focus on creating authentic relationships and building deep trust from the bottom up. This focus on relationship-building costs relatively little yet ultimately makes a tremendous difference in impact. Network entrepreneurs ensure that the power of others grows while their own power fades, thereby developing capacity in the field and a culture of distributed leadership that dramatically increases the collaboration’s efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability. These individuals foster unique cultures and values among their networks that enable those networks to sustain and scale impact (Wei-Skillern, Ehrlichman, and Sawyer 2015, 1-2).

5. Entrepreneurial

This was one of the surprising findings in my research – the importance of freedom to lead within a polycentric system. In order to thrive, each person on the team must have the autonomy to make decisions based upon their wisdom and knowledge of the situation.

Individuals and teams closest to the problem, armed with unprecedented levels of insights from across the network, offer the best ability to decide and act decisively… The doctrine of empowered execution may at first glance seem to suggest that leaders are no longer needed. That is certainly the connection made by many who have described networks such as AQI as “leaderless.” But this is wrong. Without Zarqawi, AQI would have been an entirely different organization. In fact, due to the leverage leaders can harness through technology and managerial practices like shared consciousness and empowered execution, senior leaders are now more important than ever, but the role is very different from that of the traditional heroic decision maker (McChrystal 2015, loc 3980, 4030).

6. Diverse

Finally, tapping the full range of expressions embedded within your world enhances the capacity to achieve. The wisdom found in the group – women, men, representing a variety of regions, ethnicities and cultures serves as a type of super glue, holding the organization and mission together as all voices are respected, heard and utilized. As others see such unity in diversity, it attracts them to what we are trying to accomplish together. Promod Haque, Senior Managing Partner with Norwest Venture Partners is lauded for leveraging this within his firm. As Haque states, “In venture capital, it’s important to have syndicate partners who are like-minded and also bring multiple perspectives and contacts to the group.” Social Movement theorist Schein highlights the importance of drawing from multiple people within networks to foster momentum:

For diversity to be a resource… the subculturals must be connected and must learn to value each other enough to learn something of each other’s culture and language. A central task for the learning leader, then, is to ensure good cross-cultural communication and understanding throughout the organization. Creating diversity does not mean letting diverse parts of the system run on their own without coordination. Laissez-faire leadership does not work, because it is in the nature of subgroups and subcultures to protect their own interests. To optimize diversity therefore requires some higher-order coordination mechanisms in mutual cultural understanding (Schein 1985, 143-144).

Polycentric leadership is characterized by decentralized decision-making, shared leadership, adaptability, holistic thinking, and empowerment. This approach to leadership can be effective in complex environments where there are multiple stakeholders with competing interests.


The Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) space is an example of a case where Polycentric leadership can be put into practice. Sangeet Paul Choudary, a thought leader in Platform business models, argues:

DAO platforms scale through progressive openness and decentralization. This means that these platforms are open not only at the participation layer but also at the governance and funding layers. Web3 protocols start with a centralized development team and subsequently decentralize governance across a decentralized group of token holders, typically organized in a DAO. This decentralization provides greater confidence among developers and ensures greater ecosystem participation over time, driving stronger network effects and value creation around the protocol. By distributing governance rights across a larger ecosystem of token holders, progressive decentralization spurs progressive openness and facilitates the adoption of the ecosystem. Compared to Web2 platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which infamously changed their policies once they scaled, Web3 protocols that progressively decentralize are more attractive to developers looking to commit resources to development around the core protocol… Tokenization in Web3 ecosystems enables co-ownership incentives that organize communities beyond consumer engagement. Users can own a part of the network through token ownership and access exclusive experiences through NFTs. Combining NFT ownership with a DAO setup allows for governance participation. Community engagement is crucial for Web3 projects to succeed, and kickstarting adoption requires a shared understanding of the value proposition, membership benefits, and value creation factors.[16]


This decentralized decision-making and ownership is exactly what Polycentric leadership looks like in practice. Web3 protocols can effectively scale without the sudden top-down rule changes that effect everyone and can leverage the skills and experience of a wider range of people who can each take an ownership in the development of the wider ecosystem rather than waiting for the centralized authority to develop it.

Polycentric Leadership: the Medici Effect in Leadership

To create a culture of innovation, it is important to bring together diverse perspectives from different fields, disciplines, and cultures. This can lead to extraordinary new ideas, which is the Medici Effect that we referred to in the introduction. The Medicis brought together and funded great artists, philosophers, architects, and financiers, leading to a burst of innovation and creativity that launched the Renaissance.

Innovation is not solely about original ideas; it can also encompass borrowing concepts or approaches from one discipline and applying them to another. Unearthing an innovative approach that accelerates an organization's progress entails immersing oneself in new and diverse fields. Success in this collaborative environment hinges on a climate of reciprocal trust, where warm, accessible relationships are valued and nurtured.

As we saw from Daniel’s experiences at Hof Van Cleve and the Fat Duck Group, focusing only on the original ideas of individuals and maintaining a top-down leadership structure without stakeholder buy-in can have negative consequences. At Hof Van Cleve, intense working conditions made burnout a serious problem, and failing to adequately share credit for collective successes pushed people to look elsewhere to pursue their dreams. At the Fat Duck Group, centralized decision-making and overlapping spheres of authority across groups made it impossible to innovate without competing for scarce attention from the boss, stepping on each other’s toes, and facing the risk of being overruled at every turn.

Polycentric leadership, with its six key traits—charismatic, collaborative, communal, relational, entrepreneurial, and diverse—provides the foundation for implementing innovation effectively. This leadership style can become a potent force that drives organizations forward and enhances leaders' performance. By embracing the diversity that allows for different perspectives, interpretations, heuristics, and predictive models, organizations can foster an atmosphere where innovative ideas flourish. Diverse teams consistently outperform homogeneous ones, fueling disruptive innovation and the development of novel business models.

Diversity is indispensable to innovation, as individuals possess unique ways of representing situations, interpreting the world, generating solutions, and developing predictive models. By adopting Polycentric leadership and embracing the Medici Effect, organizations can unlock their full potential, creating a thriving environment for innovation and propelling their growth forward.

[1] Handley, J. ‘Polycentric Leadership.’ Outcomes Magazine, 2020. Accessed 27 February, 2023. –

[2] Trepanier SG, FernetC, Austin S. 2013a. The moderating role of autonomous motivation in the job demands strain relation: a two sample study. Motiv. Emotion. 37(1):93–105

[3] Also referred to as Intrinsic Motivation

[4] Trepanier SG, FernetC, Austin S. 2013a. The moderating role of autonomous motivation in the job demands strain relation: a two sample study. Motiv. Emotion. 37(1):93–105

[5] Fernet C, Gagne M, Austin S. 2010.When does quality of relationships with coworkers predict burnout over time? The moderating role of work motivation. J. Organ. Behav. 31(8):1163–80

[6] Williams GC, Halvari H, Niemiec CP, Sørebø Ø, Olafsen AH, Westbye C. 2014. Managerial support for

basic psychological needs, somatic symptom burden and work-related correlates: A self-determination

theory perspective. Work Stress. 28(4):404–19

[7] Richer SF, Blanchard C, Vallerand RJ. 2002. A motivational model of work turnover. J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 32(10):2089–113

[8] Foss NJ, Minbaeva DB, Pedersen T, Reinholt M. 2009. Encouraging knowledge sharing among employees: how job design matters. Hum. Resour. Manag. 48(6):871–93

[9] Handley, Joseph W. 2020 “Polycentric Mission Leadership.” PhD Diss. Fuller Theological Seminary, School of Intercultural Studies: ProQuest; 27745033. See also Handley, Joseph. Polycentric Mission Leadership: Toward a New Theoretical Model for Global Leadership. (Regnum Press, 2022).

[10] Northouse, Peter. “Leadership: Theory and Practice” (February 2012),

[11] House, Robert and Paul Hanges, Mansour Javidian, Peter Dorfmann and Mary Sulley du Luque. Strategic Leadership Across Cultures: The GLOBE Study of CEO Leadership Behavior and Effectiveness in 24 Countries, Kindle, 268.

[12] Ostrom, Elinor. June 2010. “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems”. American Economic Review. American Economic Association. 100 (3): 641–72. And Ostrom, Elinor. Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems. Stockholm, Sweden, on December 8, 2009.

[13] House, Robert and Paul Hanges, Mansour Javidian, Peter Dorfmann and Mary Sulley du Luque. Strategic Leadership Across Cultures: The GLOBE Study of CEO Leadership Behavior and Effectiveness in 24 Countries, Kindle, 335.

[14] McChrystal, Stanley, David Silverman, Tantum Collins, Chris Fusell: Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, Penguin Random House, 2015.

[15] Hurley, Tom. “Collaborative Leadership” (Oxford Leadership, 2016),

[16] Choudary, Sangeet. Web Bootstrapping Strategies - Part 2. – (accessed February 27, 2023)

Author biographies:

Joseph W. Handley Jr., Ph.D. is the president and CEO of A3, a leader development network building capacity of movement leaders through collaborative learning communities. He is the founder and developer of and serves as a Global Catalyst for Leadership with the Lausanne Movement. He is the author of Polycentric Mission Leadership: Toward A New Theoretical Model for Global Leadership (2022). Handley was founding director of the Office of World Mission, Azusa Pacific University. 

Daniel Ospina is a social system designer, community builder, thought leader and catalyst. He is an Instigator at RnDAO, a DAO and research-led venture builder with a mission to Empower Humane Collaboration. He is the author of How the Best Restaurants in the World Balance Innovation and Consistency, HBR, January 15, 2018.