Until recently, I thought I understood what bureaucracy means: Filling out six forms in triplicate to order a ballpoint pen, waiting three weeks for your pen request forms to work their way up and back down four levels of hierarchy for management signoffs, then waiting four more weeks for the pen to arrive, only to receive a #2 pencil with a dried eraser. Now I understand that excessive paperwork, signoffs, and delays are not the definition of bureaucracy. They are the symptoms of bureaucracy.

I had been working for several years in a staff group whose purpose was to help a large IT organization define processes, standards, and policies. Then the IT group reorganized, and my staff group was now headed by a Vice President who had a strong command-and-control style. Our job was now to define processes, standards, and policies to which the rest of the IT group would adhere. Though we would engage the IT group in our work, ultimately we would enforce the standards by measuring compliance and by controlling bonuses and pay — and even continued employment — based on adherence.

Around that time, I began reading Peter Block's life-changing book Stewardship . Block strongly advocates a vision of staff groups in which "the task of staff is to serve the people who serve customers and touch the product."

As I read Stewardship, I grew increasingly uneasy. The idea of bureaucracy began to creep into my thoughts. "Bureaucracy... bureau?cracy... rule by bureau... a bureau is a staff group... so bureaucracy is... rule by... staff group. Bureaucracy is rule by staff group! "

Gack! I'm a bureaucrat!

By that time, I'd fallen in love with Block's ideas on Stewardship. Staff groups serve the people who serve the customers and touch the product. Not the other way around. I could no longer commit to the role my VP had asked me to play. Over the next few months, I worked to renegotiate my role, to find my customers and serve them. I was unable to make that work in a way that satisfied both me and the VP. I decided to leave the company. Meanwhile, the company decided to lay off a large number of employees, including me.

So I've returned to consulting, the work at which I've felt most energized, the work at which I've been able to see my customers and my contribution most clearly. When I am consulting, whether as an internal consultant or external, I'm part of a staff group, serving customers face-to-face. I'm Dale Emery, former bureaucrat.

Whom do you serve?