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Organic leadership

Updated: Nov 23, 2018

Interview: Pitrik van der Lubbe - Co-founder & CEO SmartHOTEL

Selling chicken, launching a wedding dress shop, repairing an old car, making and selling computers to an entire university class, harvesting grapes, building point of sale terminals for restaurants, and working in a tea factory are some of the jobs Pitrik held in his career.

Pitrik is today the CEO of SmartHOTEL, a software company developing and selling intricate cross-system integrations for the hospitality industry [i].

Probably one of the most approachable people I have ever met, Pitrik scores off the chart on likeability. He has been selling so many different things to so many people during his career, that you will be forgiven for thinking that he’s that guy who could sell skiing vacations to an Inuit.

Not at all.

He is not really, or at least, not exclusively a salesman. What he is though, is a passionate explorer of life’s unending opportunities. From a young age, Pitrik’s range of interests was naturally broad and his character did not flourish in contemplation: he was a born tinkerer. Pitrik’s entrepreneurial thrust was enthusiastically supported by Sari, his mother.

Relentlessly pushed by a father for whom nothing was ever enough when she was a child, Sari Bestebreurtje had grown as a forced over-achiever. As a mother herself she resented the idea of discipline for discipline’s sake and fiercely defended the right for her son to explore his interests, regardless of what they were, or how long they lasted. She did not demand perseverance, consistency, or that he elect a career. But what she did do, is teach him to recognize and nurture his passions, and to never compromise on doing something he enjoyed. She trusted that passion would lead him where he needed to go and do what needed to be done. She understood education as as the art of growing kids organically with love, support and enthusiasm, and refused to use artificial child fertilizers such as fear, ambition, or perfectionist expectations.

TRS-80 Colour Computer - Creative Commons

Seeing his budding interest in computers when Pitrik was 10, she gave him a RadioShack TRS-80, the so-called Colour Computer. Pitrik’s rapidly developing love affair with computers in the eighties spurred him to learn programming and tinkering with hardware, from which he gained skills that surpassed academic programmes available at the time.

This and many other competences he gained through his various ventures, led him to co-found SmartHOTEL in 2007 with Frank Zimmermann. The company has progressively grown to 25 employees today, a size at which some organisation becomes necessary if chaos or burn-out are not the chosen approach.

There was a pause. Pitrik never believed in hierarchy. From that standpoint, he might be the closest thing you can find in the Netherlands to an Amazonian Indian. Having grown in an industrial world, he was shielded by his circumstances from assimilating most industrial management habits.

Pitrik’s view on leadership is simple:

“I don’t have all the answers, but I have an opinion on everything, and I think we all do”.

He and Frank were thus looking for a way to let the team self-organise. A way for the team to find its own answers, to let SmartHOTEL evolve organically to become what “it” wanted to become. In his reading he finally stumbled on Holacracy and progressively this approach to self-directed teams was implemented at SmartHOTEL.

Pitrik’s career gives us a rare glimpse on what leadership looks like when unimpeded by 2,000 years of industrialisation, let’s call it organic leadership. There is organic leadership like there is organic food. Holacracy is one possible way of implementing it. This way of working is what Fredric Laloux has so successfully described in his seminal book: Reinventing organisations [ii].

Much in agreement with Laloux’s thesis, one of my deepest held beliefs about leadership is that it is natural. It emerges spontaneously and grows in the human soil, like plants naturally grow in nature.

What it does not do, is grow always in the same person at the same place. It emerges as situations require. Leadership and the ability to shape action should therefore be shared all around the organisation all of the time, and not stay concentrated at the so-called “top”.

Laloux, Pitrik and other people like David Marquet [iii], Jos de Blok at Buurtzorg [iv], or Jean-François Zobrist at Favi [v], are at the forefront of a leadership revolution. Not because they think business leaders should do more or different things. But because they advocate a world where they let go of control, do much less, and let others do more and different things.

At SmartHOTEL, being the CEO is just a role, not a job description, and it could be held by someone else. It’s not even the top role, because in self-organised teams, up or down does not have any real meaning. Decisions are not made by the CEO, not even by delegation. Decisions are taken individually by people who feel the need to act in some way or other for the good of the organisation. They follow common rules in place in the Holacracy framework for decision making.

Make no mistake, self-organisation is challenging. It requires ownership, responsibility, and to constantly question the group’s purpose. But because it does not consider the organisation like a machine, people working at SmartHOTEL enjoy an extra dose of priceless trust, autonomy, and reward the company with their whole-hearted engagement.

What in this situation is truly remarkable is that Pitrik did not implement Holacracy as the next logical step in his quest for leadership greatness, but that he went there directly. SmartHOTEL is actually his first management experience. So how did he come there?

Well, unimpeded by management theory, by following his passion, by simply being human. Organically.


About Pitrik van der Lubbe

Pitrik is Dutch, grew up in Gouda, and was the only child of divorced parents. He was an entrepreneur well before he went to university in Rotterdam, where he studied business (But did not graduate, having left school early to work). Since 2007, he is the CEO and co-founder of SmartHOTEL b.v. a connected platform affording hoteliers complete control over online hotel distribution. Pitrik lives in Gouda with his wife and two children.


[i] 30% to 40% of all hotel bookings happen nowadays through online travel agents (OTA). OTA business models vary but are typically involving a commission on every booking made. It is a lucrative business which has triggered the explosion of online travel sales. The market leader, was founded in 1996 in The Netherlands and in just 22 years has grown to employ 17,000 people in 70 countries. OTAs all work in different ways and have various mechanisms for proposing discounts or promotions, and it has become very challenging for hotels to keep track of what gets sold, where and at which price. SmartHOTEL’s cross system integrations match bookings and inventory in real time to ensure that all OTA sites always reflect the correct room vacancy information.

[ii] Laloux, F, 2014, Reinventing organisations. A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness, Nelson Parker, 360pp.

[iii] David Marquet is a former US Navy submarine commander and the inventor of intent based leadership. Having left the Navy, he published his method in Marquet, D, 2015, Turn the Ship Around! A true story of turning followers into leaders, Portfolio/Penguin.

[iv] Buurtzorg is a community care service business co-founded 10 years ago by Jos de Blok on the principle of self-organized nurse units of maximum 12 people. It has since grown to more than 10,000 employees in 25 countries, and reportedly saves 40% on care costs where it operates, whilst enjoying the highest employee satisfaction levels of the industry.

[v] Favi is a brass die casting business founded in 1957 in northern France. When Zobrist was almost literally parachuted as CEO in 1983, he revolutionized the management of the factory on the basis of self-organization. Since then, in an industry that has known massive delocalisation and economic pressure, Favi has not only thrived but also grown, remained profitable and is today a shining example of evolutionary, organic leadership.

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