Thursday, July 30, 2009

Managers and Their Tools

Part 4 of Prisoners of the Real

The implements used by humans once made the objects of our world more manageable. Tools increased the capacity of The Creative (see Part 1) to push and pull, squeeze and twist, grasp, cut, tear and gouge. In the early stages, natural objects were used to apply force: the stone became a hammer, the stick served as a lever. But beginning with the screw-cutting lathe in the 18th century, the building of machinery produced new types of tools, and soon required a new type of human being to assemble and adjust the machines.

Standardization of fastening devices and interchangeable parts mandated extension handles for the hands and feet, as well as a class of mechanics whose understanding of machine processes extended the power to control the environment. Human beings were equipping themselves to act as "lords and possessors" of nature.

In the second half of the 20th century, however, our faith in instruments – both our mechanical and institutional tools – was transformed into frustration. Vehicles of progress, we noticed, were creating obstacles and consuming vast quantities of energy rather than enhancing our individual power. Ignoring the dangers, society's managers reacted by further escalating bureaucracy and technology. An addiction to tools had infected us with "growth mania," the blind belief that poor application of knowledge could be corrected by more knowledge, the further classification and refining of facts.

It was widely assumed that errors of scientific experiment and implementation could be handled by new inquiries and more efficient control. The faith that crises could be resolved through escalation was related to a belief that, as Ivan Illich put it, "the cure for bad management is more management" – more scientific, objective and systematic. But technological escalation, he noted, had also led humanity and its institutions through two phases, or watersheds, during the century:

"At first, new knowledge is applied to the solution of a clearly stated problem and scientific measuring sticks are applied to account for the new efficiency. But at a second point, the progress demonstrated in a previous achievement is used as a rational for the exploitation of society as a whole in the service of a value which is determined and constantly revised by an element of society, by one of its self-certifying professional elites."

Medicine, to take one example, passed through its first watershed in the second decade of the 20th century; at this point the odds tipped in favor of effective disease prevention and treatment. But by the 1940s the tools of medicine, which had, among other accomplishments, reduced infant mortality, were also starting to cause genetic damage. Doctors began to create new kinds of illnesses, and research was increasingly directed at medically created problems. Life was extended, but at exorbitant cost.

Advanced medical technology, widely equated with increases in life expectancy, actually did little to improve the general level of health. Rather, high-tech medicine increased patients' dependence on machines, drugs, and the experts who controlled them. As new illnesses were defined, specialization of services increased. Although benchmarks set by the medical establishment continued to be reached, the negative costs skyrocketed – social control, illusion, prolonged suffering, loneliness, genetic deterioration, and frustration. By 1999, the Institute of Medicine estimated that medical errors were killing almost 100,000 people in the US every year.

The medical crisis is in many ways analogous to those affecting other institutions. All are consequences of the evolution of professional industries and a society which demands that they provide "better" services – health, transportation, education, and so on. In order to improve the standard of service, however, people voluntarily offer themselves as guinea pigs. In the case of health care, we have surrendered the right to declare ourselves sick or well; our claims are accepted by society only when a member of the medical bureaucracy certifies them.

Since the second watershed, society's managers have exercised almost unlimited power through manipulative tools, expanding their control over our activities in the interest of efficiency and order. In Illich's words, "they hold and manage power no matter who lives in the illusion that he owns the tools." The issue is no longer ownership of the means of production, but rather the characteristics of leaders and their tools.

Managers of most organizations are selected on the basis of specific characteristics, competencies and interests, all geared to maximizing production – that is, providing more of everything as they move ever higher, and meanwhile promote the conditioning of their employees and clients. Their favored tools are those that increase regimentation, dependence, and impotence. A few of the most dangerous of these have been highways, systems of mass communication and resource exploitation, and compulsory schools.

For "modern" managers the central criterion is the ability to achieve. As competitors in their specific fields, they steadily narrow their interest and motivation. In fact, success rests on their ability to become machines, engines without limits, dedicated to the pursuit of victory and the satisfaction of ego. How predictable, then, that our political leaders so often instruct us to "win" some economic or social war. In the last 40 years, inhabitants of the United States in particular have been rallied to wage war on poverty, unemployment, inflation, terrorism and drugs, to name but a few, urged at each turn to think of themselves as "number one."

According to Philip Slater, leaders ultimately must choose between two forms of power – negative and positive. One is the ability to control, force, imprison, invade and kill; the other is the ability to influence, arouse love and respect, and get one's needs met. The latter is "personal power," described by Carlos Castaneda and other students of this primal force. But competing institutions, states and nations usually choose the static, negative form, creating a deadly balancing act. Negative power relations are like two people with guns at each other's heads – or two opposing nations with weapons of mass destruction aimed at each other's territory.

Concentrated negative power, one of the most destructive legacies of scientific rationalism, grows from fear and mistrust, an acceptance of the notion that the natural state of humanity is war. The necessity of coercion flows naturally from this assumption, and leads in turn to the threat of destruction. Thus, even the most benign of power centers can't promote spontaneity, change or independent creative action. Their very natures require control, a reliance on defensive structures and regulations, and a preference for conditioning.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, when a person acquires the habit of negative power he (or sometimes she) is unlikely to tolerate restraints. "The worst horrors in history," Slater notes, "have been perpetuated by 'sensible,' practical males 'taking the necessary steps' to beat some symbolic opponent to a symbolic goal." In a society that has internalized such an ethic of control, achievement and inhibition, the "great evil" of our time – authoritarianism – becomes a life style. The Great Dictator is each of us.

The process that has led us to this pass began with absolute monarchs, extreme individualists who nevertheless often provided their subjects with a facsimile of wholeness and belonging. The basic social contract, however, had an unstated amendment: the ruler will create order in return for total deference. Eventually, however, the sense of isolation, uniqueness and separateness that haunted rulers was diffused to the masses. Society's leaders were no longer the lone individualists. Everyone was a potential individualist and manager, to the extent that he or she learned to act logically and rationally. As the global process of democratization began, technology extended this revolutionary prospect to the millions.

But there is one more step – the inhibition of impulse and feeling at the mass level in societies overwhelmed by their narcissistic goals. Responsibilities require that managers become adept at postponing gratification; and this quality too has been effectively diffused, with entire cultures exhibiting the ethic of control. Today individualism is mainly an illusion, since "free" citizens are largely unable to function spontaneously, either alone or in groups. With most people acting as their own dictators, managers find it easy to "facilitate" democracy within organizations. In such rational collectives, achievement is usually the accepted standard against which most activities are measured. Responsiveness to self or others, on the other hand, is too often a casualty.

Next: The Corporate Way of Life


The Creative Also Destroys

Deconstructing Leadership

Anatomy of Insecurity

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Anatomy of Insecurity

Part 3 of Prisoners of the Real

Despite the empty promises of several generations of modern leaders, we have gained little to date by trusting the judgment of technicians, bureaucrats, and other rational managers. If proof is needed, just ask yourself: Are we any more secure today about where we and the planet are heading?

Security, say the dictionaries, is a feeling of safety or freedom from anxiety. Based on this definition, few people can claim true security in the opening moments of the 21st century. Our political and social systems are seriously flawed; in fact, they apparently breed corruption. Most societies can't even meet the most basic human needs – shelter, food, and health for all. And the industrial way of life is probably the single largest factor in the violent disruption of nature all over the planet.

Even the richest among us, the few for whom the "system" still works, will admit that the price of our domination and wasting of nature may be too high for us to pay. We can't even be secure about our long-term existence on the Earth. In the coming years, the average global temperature may rise by several degrees, even taking into account a major reduction in pollution. In less than 40 years the world could be from five to eight degrees warmer.

Experts differ, as usual, about what this means, but it seems likely that sea levels will rise. In the Southwestern US, temperatures could easily be above 100 degrees almost six months out of every year. Meanwhile, thousands of acres of oceanfront in Massachusetts may disappear, and enormous expanses of forests will probably die. America may no longer be "breadbasket" to the world. The predictions are abundant, of course, and many of them contradict each other. But few provide any sense of security.

The very idea of nature as something independent of human will has become obsolete. Yet, rather than reacting with concern and looking toward the restoration of nature, most of the solutions being proposed focus on forms of "global management," new forms of manipulation designed to compensate for the older forms that produced this mess. The rallying cry of this misguided crusade has been to "take control of the planet" – meaning that we need only find new ways to dominate the mutated nature we’ve created. If our past mistakes have overheated the world, "global managers" suggest that we find new and better methods: make the forests grow denser and straighter, harvest not only crops but animals. Researchers are creating new species, in the long-term hope of turning the life process itself to our advantage.

For several hundred years we have believed that nature was nothing more than a complex mechanism, a machine whose secrets we could eventually unlock. Humans considered themselves the "lords of nature," destined to control the cosmic factory. We extended our quest to the very heart of matter – and smashed it. But we were wrong. Atoms are not solid, nature is not a machine, and the universe can't be divided and dissected without the gravest of consequences.

Domination of nature has led us to a dead end, just as domination of humanity has brought misery, poverty and the devastation of most of the world's peoples. The legacy of our mistakes is insecurity and alienation, war and waste.

At the heart of the problem is the set of values underpinning life in the developed countries. A desire for endless material advancement, the basis of our addiction to growth, has prevented us from setting limits or ending the domination of nature to suit our current fancy. Yet that is what it will take. In essence, we must transform our way of life, turning away from accumulation and toward sustainability.

Our old approaches – rationalism, competition, inventions and invasions – will leave us with nothing but a deadened, artificial world. If we want to save the planet, therefore, we must turn from the mechanical to the creative, from Apollo to Dionysus, from domination of nature and human beings to cooperation with both nature and one another. The time has come to choose; either we continue to adapt nature to suit ourselves, or we change ourselves.

Even if we do everything we can, the process will be slow and probably painful. And all along the way, the temptation to settle for some technological quick fix will continue. But if we resist, if we defy and, when we can, transform those who would manage nature into extinction rather than defying and transforming nature itself, we may find the way back to harmony, cooperation and the ecological security we have lost.

Prisoners of the Real is part of the process, a look back at how we reached an impasse, and a vision of where to go from here.

Next: Managers and Their Tools


The Creative Also Destroys

Deconstructing Leadership

Friday, July 17, 2009

Deconstructing Leadership

Part 2 of Prisoners of the Real

This is about the people in charge. We give them a variety of names -- executives, administrators, managers, coordinators, officers, foreman, leaders, presidents, and kings. When they meet, discussing their problems and ours, their decisions affect everyone. They are wielders of power, the men and woman who are "responsible."

The ideas and actions of our leaders are like pebbles tossed into the stream of life. And in a sense, we all send out intersecting ripples. But leaders, because most of us listen to them – and usually follow their advice or directions – make the largest waves. Clearly, then, we owe it to ourselves to understand how they think and how their thoughts are transformed in the real world.

This is also, and perhaps more importantly, an examination at how individuals currently and, potentially, could relate to organizations. Like any conceptual system, this one establishes artificial boundaries for the purpose of analysis. Categories are proposed, and admittedly debatable distinctions are drawn. The approach isn’t strictly logical; rather it is a combined product of intellect, emotion and will. The central assumption, eloquently stated by John Lilly, is that we should continually strive to move beyond our current structures of belief. "In the province of the mind," Lilly once wrote, "what is believed to be true is true or becomes true, within limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the province of the mind, there are no limits."

According to system theorist Kenneth Berrian, any attempt to "master" knowledge in a discipline will result at best in an outline of ignorance. Since what will follow is a synthesis of knowledge from several disciplines, Berrian's warning is especially apt. Thus, I don’t claim mastery, but rather offer my observations, combining them with some hopeful speculation.

The observations began more than 40 years ago, when I began to examine first-hand the American struggle for self-government. As an aspiring journalist, I admired the "muckraking" reporters of an earlier era. One of the foremost, Lincoln Steffens, traveled across the United States in 1901 to investigate structures and processes at the municipal and state levels. Among his findings about the power brokers of his time was that Mark Hanna, who had engineered William McKinley into the White House for a second term, didn't much concern himself with the "issues." Like many leaders, what Hanna wanted was "the management of the American people in the interest of the American businessman for the profit of American business and politics."

At the end of his journey, Steffens concluded that it would be "worthwhile to look straight in the face the fact that there is no marketable commodity more easily cornered than the people themselves. The people are a crop that costs little to harvest, and not the ablest men in the country go into the business." Unfortunately, the same could be said of contemporary political life.

Over the years since Steffens chronicled what he called "the shame of the cities," however, people have continued to struggle valiantly against the cynicism of journalists and the schemes of social engineers. Aware of this dynamic, I offer a conclusion of my own: the decisive issue is autonomy. Each human being, however limited his or her choices may appear, cherishes freedom and believes in the ability to make wise independent choices – that is, to find the best way to reach personal goals. Many of us also think we have something unique to contribute to our work group, community or society. This is a dynamic spirit I call Dionysian Leadership. The world is rich with potentially Dionysian leaders, and together they constitute a vital alternative to the dangerous growth of rational collectivism, a phenomenon reflected in the dominance of society at large by rigid technicians and obsequious bureaucrats.

Though it may sound extreme at first, the argument that will be made in the installments to folllow is that the solution to many organizational problems, at the local as well as the global level, will be found by turning to a model of group guidance grounded in the intuitive approach of mystics and artists. These natural Dionysian leaders understand that diversity benefits both the individual and the group. Drawing from their experiences, others can move away from directive techniques and toward an "enabling" role that poses challenges for choice. Like Thoreau, they extol the sovereignty of each individual. Like Voltaire, they believe that reality is the lie agreed upon.

On the surface, this may seem a bit mystical and abstract to be practical for complex situations in a post-industrial society. However, such an approach to organization-building and ongoing management is also consistent with the discoveries of system theory. There is even a systems term for the impulse to find independent routes to a shared goal – equifinality. As a systems analyst might put it, the structure of organizations should shift as "role tenants" change. Despite this advice, however, most modern organizations opt for increased structural rigidity in the face of almost any crisis or change.

Another relevant observation of system thinkers is that the merging of smaller systems within larger units is a progressive inevitability. The problem is that, very often in such circumstances, individuality is viewed as a form of deviance. Within most bureaucracies, specialization and rationalization make workers subservient to division of labor concerns. The organization, say our “rational” managers, must advance "as a whole," and can't easily consider the needs of everyone. In reality, however, an understanding of parts rather than the whole is actively promoted. The concomitant anonymity and secrecy that characterize rational collectives are potent forces working against responsibility. In the end, decisions are made independent of human choice.

With such contradictions in mind, Dionysian leadership stresses the centrality of individual responsibility and true engagement. The simple fact is that loyalty oaths and security measures can provide little help in forming ethical positions or nurturing organizations based in a moral awareness. And if we are to respond effectively to the myriad problems facing the world, nothing less than that will do.

Next: Anatomy of Insecurity

Previously: The Creative Also Destroys

Friday, July 3, 2009

Father Knows Less

Thirty-one years ago today my son Jesse arrived, changing my life forever. Twenty years ago I wrote about what he means to me. I still feel the same. So, here’s that essay:

Jesse tells me that I'm definitely not cool. I don't dress right, he says, and I couldn't possibly beat him in a footrace. Why do I put up with such abuse, day after day, as he hits me for money or lounges around like a little king while I make his lunch?

He's a kid, that's why. My kid. And no one is more amazed than I that we've made it so far without major injuries or mayhem. "But dad," he reminds me, "I had my appendix removed. Use your brain."


"Use your brain," he likes to say, usually when illustrating why he is smarter or more in touch with reality than I am. Lately, he's become the kind of lovable smart alec you want to hug and pummel at the same time. But since he's my wiseguy, I can do that. It's one of the few privileges connected with fatherhood. That and puffing up with pride whenever he does something especially well.

That's my boy!

How did I become this dad person? In my twenties I was one of those people who stated flatly that there were already too many people in this sick world. Why condemn another being to life on this suffering globe? In 1970, I recall laughing ruefully when Kurt Vonnegut outlined the problem to the graduating class of Bennington College. He begged the women to believe a ridiculous superstition: that humanity is at the center of the universe.

"If you can believe that," he said, "and make others believe it, then there might be hope for us. Human beings might stop treating each other like garbage, might begin to treasure and protect each other instead. Then it might be all right to have babies again."

Eight years later I participated in the making of a baby anyway. Despite the fact that everything was still getting worse, I'd decided that creating a new life might actually help. At least it might help me find a purpose larger than myself but more manageable than world revolution.

In the delivery room after a full day of labor, I helped Robin regulate her breathing while the staff tried to adapt to our Lamaze demands. Jesse's emergence into the world still ranks as one of the most moving events of my life. Our friend, Doreen, put the crucial moments on film.

With such an entrance, I suppose it was destiny that Jesse would turn out to be some kind of performer. And as if to prove it, upon graduating from elementary to middle school just about 11 years later, he won the "Class Clown" award from an appreciative fifth grade teacher.

That's my boy!

No manual can prepare you for the rigors and rewards of fatherhood. It's one thing to read about waking up nightly at 3 a.m. and quite another to do it. There is also no way to capture in words the feeling of holding your infant child and knowing that, for the moment at least, his life depends entirely on you and your partner.

Even if you don't read all the books, you quickly learn the ropes. When it comes to raising kids, trial and error is virtually unavoidable. Sometimes a chance experience provides an important clue. The secret to putting Jesse to sleep, for instance, came to me while riding with him in a car. Vibration was a foolproof sleep-inducer. After the first success, anytime I couldn't rock him to sleep I'd take him for a ride.

Maybe that's why he's so hung up on Lamborghinis.

The books also won't prepare you for the strong emotions that sweep over at times of trouble or joy. This is perhaps more shocking for men, who are used to keeping their feelings under wraps. The first time Jesse wanted to climb a tree, I was frantic. Images of crushed little bones invaded my brain, forcing me to hover nearby and utter inexcusable inanities.

Equally unnerving was the absolute pride I felt when Jesse won some trophies for karate or horsemanship. It was a powerful surge of pleasure that I'd rarely felt even when winning a prize myself. And it was not the size of the victory that mattered, but rather that my kid had mastered some new skill. I realized that there was nothing wrong with taking pride in such progress – as long as you didn't mind looking a little foolish.

For me, perhaps the biggest surprise was how comfortable I became in the role of dad. It put my feet on the ground like no job ever could. Very soon I was hooked on the experience. I reveled in the responsibility, and looked for opportunities to be a role model. I also found that it was possible to be both a father and a friend. Cuddling with Jesse, talking about school or watching a film, was often the highlight of my day.

Just how central Jesse was to my life became clearest when we were apart. My frequent trips overseas meant that we were separated for months at a time. Even if I was in some idyllic setting, his face would appear in my mind's eye and I'd be lonely.

There was only one way to describe that feeling – love.

Being a dad – at least one worth having – also means being a teacher and sometimes a boss. Since I'd taught previously, the former wasn't such a stretch. But setting down rules on matters such as toys and television put my self-image through some heavy changes.

Here I was, saying things like "turn it off NOW," and "No, you can't have that $25 hunk of plastic." Who was that guy using my mouth? Had my father taken control of my body? I tried to change the dynamic by shifting into my teacher role.

"Now, Jesse, you know what commercials do?" I would explain. "They make you want to buy things you don't need."

But he, as usual, was way ahead of me. "You mean they're lying, right?"


Still, his ability to see through the lies did not prevent him from wanting to consume. Though I resisted, we did go through action figures (without the guns), Gobots, Autobots, Transformers, and a slight touch of Masters of the Universe. Later came Atari and Nintendo video games. I despised these plastic and video monsters, but what could I do but remind him that they were trash? A ban on mass culture would only have alienated my best friend.

It was a costly compromise, but we both survived without too many laser burns.

TV was more problematic. My own philosophy was that content matters more than time. Thus, I would prefer it if he spent three hours watching "Fanny and Alexander" rather than one hour glued to "The A-Team." Robin felt, on the other hand, that time limits were also important. Jesse must have found it humorous to watch his two parents arguing repeatedly over how many hours of tube time he should be allowed on weekends – especially since he could violate the rules with impunity once he was in some more "liberal" household.

If there is a right answer to the great TV debate, I sure haven't found it. But the struggle has taught me that limits are necessary, and that most kids instinctively understand they are signs of caring. Both TV and toy struggles also have made it clear that we're living in a deeply addictive culture. When a kid is hooked on video games at eight, there's no telling what he'll be into at 18.

Anyone who thinks his or her child is immune to the psychic assault of mass culture would be well advised to heed my son's advice: "Wake up and smell the rubber barf.

Since we're still friends, Jesse has been explaining a few things lately about girls. They're mostly silly and giggly, and their notes are not cool. "I think you're cute," several of them wrote recently. "Do you think I'm cute?" One even added, "I want your body."

"And what did you do?" I asked naively.

"Brain, dad," he said. "It's going to be a long process.”

I don't know if most 11-year-olds are as philosophical about pre-pubescent rituals, but I was reassured. I was also a bit shocked to learn that by 10 they know as much about sex as I knew at 15. From the vocabulary to the techniques, somehow they've covered it. One friend told me that the celebration at a birthday party her daughter attended came to a crashing halt when the 8-year-old birthday girl got a shock: her "boyfriend" had "slept with" one of her best friends.

Luckily, Jesse seems satisfied with his "long process." He's much more turned on by a solid homerun than a kiss right now. His passion is achievement, especially when it involves beating his old dad.

But he has been showing signs of rebellion lately. It's no longer enough to simply bend the rules. I get the strong impression he wants to change them. In the old days, it was easy to convince him that tagging along with the adults would be fun. Now he knows better. Meetings are boring, and all we oldsters seem to enjoy is talking. Kids thrive on action, and by 11 I guess they're ready to break away.

There really isn't a choice. To demand that your child like the things you enjoy is asking the impossible. Force only makes matters worse, deepening the suspicion that parents are out of touch. Or as Jesse puts it, "In the olden days things were less cool."

But sometimes I can still convince my friend to trust my judgment, usually by offering to meet at least some of his needs. Though force usually fails, I find that most kids remain open to persuasion and fair negotiation.

Jesse hasn't read Kurt Vonnegut yet, but I think he already shares some of the writer's pessimism. Even though he thinks he's quite different than his dad, he may have inherited some of that from me. I can only hope he's also learned to take risks and hold onto his sense of humor.

And what about dad? Well, even though I've changed from respected authority figure to poorly dressed geek, I'm still satisfied with the job.