Thursday, February 15, 2007

a conversation with Warren Bennis

You may recall that we started to look at whether institutions inevitably betrayed their values. I put the thesis forward that all institutions are based on a lie, namely, "We'll take care of you." The subsequent discussion brought out the point that institutions are necessary and needed if humans are to live together in the large numbers that they currently do. I proposed the analogy of the body as an institution. It''s basic unit is the cell, but it manages to grow and flourish quite well and is a very robust institution. Somehow, all the cells, and the higher level organizational units, such as the various organs, and the still higher organizational units, the various systems (nervous system, digestive system, circulatory system, etc.) seem to get along without too much conflict.

After our conversation, I continued to ruminate on why I find the emphasis on leadership so troubling.

At this point I have to beg your patience as the two of you have made leadership your chosen areas of study and expertise and my subsequent comments may seem naive or pretentious.

The conclusion that I came to was that an emphasis on leadership may divert attention away from another important question, namely, "How do each of us live and function in a healthy way in a world which is populated by institutions?"

In my limited exposure to leadership studies, one theme keeps coming up: how do leaders create healthy vibrant institutions? Implicit in this question is the fact that leaders of organizations may have to radically alter the size, structure, and direction of organizations to keep them viable, with all the human costs that such changes entail.

Now I'd like to return to the analogy of the body, for a moment. The body routinely kills off thousands, if not millions, of cells every day. This is for the well-functioning of the body. It would be presumptuous of any cell in the body to say that it knew what was needed for the well-being of the body. Indeed, it would be presumptuous of any organ, or any system in the body, to claim that they knew best what the body actually needed. Any group of cells that did so would likely create serious imbalances in the body. And if they monopolized the bodies resources to pursue their agenda, they would, in medical terms, be regarded as causing an illness, perhaps even a cancer.

I wondered, then, if, by putting emphasis on leadership, we are focusing attention (and resources) on a particular group of cells. The attention tends to create and reinforce a myth, namely, that these individuals and the organizations they lead can function in a way that is aligned with our own individual interests. This would be analogous to the body saying that it could function and take care of every cell at the same time. This possibility is, of course, counter to how the body actually functions.

I then moved to the question, "If I'm a cell in this world populated by organs and systems; how do I live my life?" Well, if I disrupt the organs too much, I kill myself. But if I follow the agenda and needs of the organ or system I'm in, then my fate is decided by the needs of the body. In a strange way, perhaps, I find this line of thinking returning to such old themes as free will, determination, responsibilty, etc.

When I look at my work with individuals, I see that much of my work is informed by this second question, "How do I live in a world populated by institutions?" This often leads to the development of leadership skills in the individuals with whom I work, not because they intend to become leaders, but because, by taking a larger and deeper view, they move into leadership positions naturally. Somewhat ironic in the end.