January 17, 2017West of Tomorrow and Change in the 21st Century

West of Tomorrow: Ethics, Stewardship and the Genesis of the Problem

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Last Week’s Post…
In my post last week, entitled West of Tomorrow, Stewardship and American Ethics, I took network television to task (and specifically  the “Survivor” series), outlining the similarities between the ethical philosophy in “Survivor” to those of the financial community responsible (in part) for the financial melt-down of 2008.

To clarify…I was not suggesting the ethical shortcomings of the “Survivor” players were responsible for or even

photo from the TV reality series, "Survivor"

"The Tribe has Spoken..."

contributed to the financial meltdown.  My point was that “Survivor” is symptomatic of a larger ethical problem in our society.  “Survivor,” by the way is not the only program guilty of celebrating ethical malfeasance for in the name of entertainment.  Consider the following programs on network television, all currently running, all popular enough to bring back for another season.

  1. Consider “Suits,” in which a one-time drug-trafficker with a photographic memory manages to get hired by a narrow- gauge law firm on the basis of that memory; with the active abetting and deception on the part of the attorney who hires him.  The entire program revolves around the problems growing out of the initial deception.
  2. Consider “Person of Interest,”  in which a burned out CIA operative teams up with a brilliant developer to fight crime.  The programmer, responsible for a ubiquitous software package to combat terrorism, becomes disillusioned by the government, who ignores as irrelevant all crime against individual citizens.  The programmer and the CIA operative team up to take the law into their own hands, defeating the “bad guys” while on the lam law enforcement individuals of whom they suborn to provide them with the intelligence they need to take the law into their own hands.
  3. There are others…many others.  I’ve simply chosen three above at random currently running.  I could as easily have mentioned “Hawaii Five-O,” or “Revenge,” or “Leverage.”  All are examples of individuals or groups represented as heroes who operate outside the law for purposes of their own…some apparently ethical, other clearly not.
Photo of Leverage Cast

The Cast of Leverage

I’ll stipulate that I recognize these are fiction and aired “for entertainment” purposes only.  But should we (perhaps) be concerned by the broad popularity of programming that promotes deception, even in the name of desirable ends?

It isn’t difficult to see where this comes from. We have a long-standing tradition of romanticizing individualism, particularly when back-dropped by a system that’s failing.  And Americans are perpetually on the side of the underdog.  Which begs the question, why is this theme so common, never mind so popular?  Are these programs popular because they match our belief system?  Does that belief system have its roots in the notion that our society is not simply unfair…it is cynically constructed to be unfair?  What if it’s true?

The Organizational Paradox.
These questions lead us to consider things rooted so deeply in our past, many of us tend to overlook them.  The problem…and the solution…I, believe, is to be found inside those “organizations” themselves and our relationships with them.  Today, most of us (particularly in “civilized society) take organizations for granted.  Most of us have always been part of one or more.  Many of us view “other” organizations  as monolithic, sterile organisms largely unworthy of trust.  Right now, Congress and Corporate America head our hit parade of organizations who are not friends of the individual and whose agenda is unworthy of trust.  But because we are social creatures, we rarely take that understanding far enough.  Not only are organizations not “individual friendly,” they are often individuals’ natural enemy.  Here’s why.

Photo of Organizational Tree

Organizations de facto outgrowth their members...

Consider these definitions from Webster’s Tenth Collegiate Dictionary:

  1. Organization (as a noun) is:  “…an administrative and functional structure;
  2. Organization (as an adjective) is:  “…characterized by conformity to the standards and requirements of the organization (an organizational man).”  
  3. To Organize (a verb), is:  “…to arrange elements into a whole of interdependent parts…”

Can you imagine anything less friendly to individualism than the process of organizing…or joining an existing organization?  Many organizations have rites of passage whose purpose is subordinating the interests of joining individuals to the organization.  By definition, organizations are about standards or requirements, usually oriented toward a purpose ostensibly transcending (and hence more valuable) than the importance of the individual.

This begs a question so obvious we rarely bother to ask it, because the answer is equally obvious.  If an organization demands the subordination of the individual, why would an individual join an organization in the first place?  Is it not because the organization fulfills a need (or needs) the individual values enough to trade away part of his/her sovereignty to accomplish?  In other words…the individual gives away some of his/her power to leverage the greater power of the organization.  And it works.  The power of many is consistently greater than the power of one.

The leaders of the organization, then become Stewards of that power and (in theory) use that power in the name

High Concept image of a Leader grown too powerful

When leaders develop interest fundamentally different than his organizational constituents, problems are inevitable.

of their organizational constituents.  As long as the organization contributes to a majority of individuals’ high priority goals, it seems like a fair trade.  Organized hunts result in food.  Armies provide protection in a hostile world.  Political parties harness the power of like minds in the body politic.  Religious institutions provide “meaning” or “comfort” in the uncertainty that comes from knowing we will ultimately die.  Big business provides work and/or profits which we equate to mean cooperative, mutual advantage in some form.  Until they aren’t, anymore.  Which leads us to our second question so obvious we often forget to ask it.  Why would the leadership of an organization forget the strength upon which the organization was built?

Practical & Ethical Dilemmas in the Organization.
Because successful organizations grow and evolve…and in growing and evolving, almost always develop an identity distinct from those who originally formed it.  It takes on a life of its own and like any living organism, will fight to survive.  Once an organization transitions from a servant of its members to an organism intent on its own survival, the accomplishment of objectives which led individuals to form (or join) it in the first place take a back seat.  This does not mean that many (perhaps even most) of the individuals may not still find value in membership.  Perhaps even for the duration of their lives.  But the organization itself…more accurately, the leadership (or Stewards) charged with the organization’s survival…continues to fulfill member value not for the individual, but rather because it the organization’s leadership perceives it is in their best interests.

This subtle disconnection of interests between Steward-leaders and member-followers results in the leadership of the organization viewing their own interests as lying (at least in part) outside the context of its members.  The larger and more powerful the organization, the more removed from the interests of its members is leaders are likely to become.  In the name of efficiency, the organization begins to form rules based on its collective experiences.  The rules may make sense generally, but for practical reasons, cannot cover every possible specific situation.  Over time, the divergence of the organization’s interests with those of the individuals in the “rank and file” becomes more pronounced.  From the bottom looking up, the leadership is viewed as out of touch and arbitrary, resulting in conflict.

But even more important than how leaders (or Stewards) of the organization of are viewed by the rank and file is how the leaders view themselves.  The access to information not everyone has persuades leaders to believe they are also wiser.  As the gap between what leaders and their followers know widens, the leaders become less willing to bring the rank and file up to speed in order to enable them to participate meaningfully in decisions.  Over time, as the gap becomes wider.  Eventually, the leaders become disdainful of those they lead.  Even if  they remain philosophically committed to “fairness” or “equality,” the rapid fire pace of life, particularly in the 21st Century leads them to decide first and explain later.  Who among us has not heard it’s easier get forgiveness than permission?

That brings us to the genesis of the problem.  Organizations by definition erode the autonomy (and importance) of the individual.  The drafters of the US Constitution understood this.  The “balance of power” at the heart of the Constitution and constitutional law recognizes this dynamic.  But the drafters of our Constitution made insufficient allowance for how sophisticated today’s organizations and the knowledge frameworks at their disposal would become.  I suspect our founding fathers could also not envision that our society would become as diverse as it has.  “E pluribus unum” has been taken to it’s almost unmanageable extreme.  In future posts, I we will consider if meaningful consensus…one that translates into a coherent policy is even possible.  For now, I submit we should consider whether the very capacity and sophistication of modern organizations themselves may not have outstripped our individual capacity to keep the leaders of those organizations honest.

From Problem to the Beginnings Solutions

So any solution(s) to problems of fairness, equality, ethics and sound governance (and by association, the legitimacy) of any organization at any level requires at least the following elements to succeed.

  1. There must be a revitalization of confidence in organizations as a whole, or people will either abandon them or destroy them; and possibly the society along with them.
  2. In order for the first condition to be fulfilled, leaders must become Stewards…men and women whose authority is more directly tied to the outcome of  their behaviors on all…not merely themselves.  The more impactful the organization on society as a whole, the more true this is.  “Social responsibility,” in other words, can no longer be just another part of a Corporation’s marketing strategy.  In the case of political and geopolitical matters, the “body politic” cannot be those who can contribute enough to get a politician re-elected, whether that is “the party,” a corporate or individual contributor or a Super PAC.

In my next post, we will begin to drill down from the general principles we have discussed in the last few posts to the maddeningly difficult practicalities of implementing a system difficult enough to pervert to survive for at least a couple decades.  Until then!


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Showing 49 comments
  • TammiM

    Really informative. Many thanks for sharing!

    • Dirk

      You’re welcome, Tammi. Thanks for stopping by.

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    • Dirk

      Hey Zack:
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      Best wishes,

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    • Dirk

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    • Dirk

      Thanx Terri!

  • John K.

    Thanks for posting. Great article. I had never thought too much about how much pop culture affects our thinking.

    • Dirk

      Hi John:
      It’s one of the chicken or the egg things, isn’t it? I’m not sure if art reflects life or life mirrors art. I suspect both go on concurrently with the result that the very best and worst of us fight this perpetual battle for our attention. Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to read. Hope to hear from you again.
      Best wishes,

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    • Dirk

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    • Dirk

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  • Wendell S.

    Why haven’t I heard of you before and why isn’t everyone reading you? This is a great article. Looking forward to More, more…MORE!

    • Dirk

      Thanks, Wendell.

      Actually, I’ll be undertaking a blog series loosely titled The Organizational Paradox that will deal with these and other issues…and will provide very specific examples of the dynamics that seem to be herding us in the wrong direction…just my opinion.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment.
      Best wishes,

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    • Dirk

      Appreciate the props! Come back any time.

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    • Dirk

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    • Dirk

      You’re welcome. Will do…!

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    • Dirk

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    • Dirk

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    • Dirk

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      See the Contact Us button floating in the left margin. Just click, type & click send. I’ll get it.

  • Anna L

    Dead on! But I hope you don’t plan to ever get hired in corporate America, again!

  • Corrie A

    It’s so true. There’s been a lot of talk for a long time about how the content we consume drives how we think. This post is dead on!

    • Dirk

      Thanks, Corrie! Obviously, I agree…

  • Catamina

    You’re right and you said it right! Thanks for the post. You’re also right about it applying to all organizations!

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