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.


steveself said...

One confusion here might be the difference between a holon-organism with agency: I (agent) move my body across the room and all the cells come along and have no choice in the matter... And a social holon with nexus agency: when a leader decides to move the organization in a direction each member has a choice and can come along or not.

These are VERY different situations and behaviors, we must be very careful when mis-considering organizations as having true agency (they do not); any conclusions may be fallacious.

Jan said...

Why couldn't institutions be seen as organized like meditative fields? There may be one person at the center of the field who is articulating the vision, but all sitting in the field both support and benefit from the vision. I think I heard this description in the Mahamudra series. I also have also heard Eckhard Tolle describe himself as simply seeming to be "at the center of this energy field". It all seems to be a much more organic and much less linear approach to organization.

Is this just naive? Is it even on topic?

Ken said...

In response to Steveself, you are right, the analogy only goes so far. Yet, to characterize the "I" as agent may be problematic. Both contemporary studies on brain processes and traditional Buddhist views on mind challenge the existence of a self as agent.

Ken said...

In response to Jan, and this echoes Steveself's comments, organizations do not exist as entities. The energy field is the "soup" formed by all the projections of the individuals who interact. Awareness, as such, resides only in individuals. There is no awareness in the organization itself.

Michael said...

I was thinking this just the other month, about how individuals in an institution (be it a corporation, a nation, a city) come to resemble the cells of an organism, and how the evolution of the organism is dependent, to some extent, on individuals becoming highly specialized and dependent themselves on the whole organism. It is amazing to think that each of us is just one piece of a larger super-organism, and sometimes humbling.

The earliest multicellular creatures were just a group of cells tied together in a circle, linked by molecular hands against the outer environment, striving, if they can be given agency, to maintain homeostasis. Over time, those organisms that were better suited to their environment passed on their way of being more frequently, and so they wrote a bigger chapter in the story of complexity triumphing over disorder.

I imagine that human cultures developed along similar lines. How else do we explain the growing complexity of our civilizations, the diminishing autonomy of its individuals and the concentration of power in the hands of those individuals with the most and best connections (think of purkinje cells in the brain with their hundreds of thousands of contacts with other neurons, the command center of the organism).

I don't think it's a coincidence that the language of immunology textbooks mimics the language used to describe war and the maintenance of security, the body's police force.

Ken, there is a line in "Wake up to your life" that relates to this matter and that troubles me: "When we are awake and present in the mystery of being, intention is determined not by conditioned agendas but by direct awareness that knows the situation. The direct awareness code involves knowing and acting on the intention of the present."

I have been meditating for about eight months now, and I have reached a point where I feel like I have lost my sense of urgency about my own agency. In fact, I have come to doubt the nature of agency itself. The excerpt above speaks to this displacement of agency, as if situations have an intention of their own.

How am I to judge what the intention of the present is? How do I know that I am not simply relinquishing my autonomy to the will of the super-organism, by the institutions that surround me?

Michael said...

And thank you, Ken, for the blog. It's really cool!

Ken said...

In response to your question about agency, whether situations have intentions of their own, this, in my opinion, would be a problematic way of looking at things.

First, where is consciousness? Generally, we see consciousness as resident in us, in some way, and we see the world we experience as being devoid of consciousness. So, from this perspective, it would be difficult to say that situations have intentions.

However, when one opens to experience, without editing, or judging, etc., one can sense directly where things are out of balance and can sense where things need to move and perhaps how they need to move. This we can call the direction of the present.

When we align with the direct of the present, then we are, to use Taoist terms, in harmony with the world. Things just flow and we feel as if we are doing nothing.

I don't know exactly what you are experiecing, of course, but you may just be responding more natually to situations. Possibility?