Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Hypocrisy will rot the foundations of an organization like nothing else. Hierarchies are efficient decision-making structures, but to function effectively they need a shared vision that goes beyond glorification of the leader.

When a politician makes his name as a crusader by mercilessly imprisoning prostitutes and then uses the privileges of office himself to consort with prostitutes or a politician who campaigns for global democracy makes war on those very same civilian populations he claims to be saving, the integrity of the institution is at risk.

The pattern is all too familiar. A low-level manager, too ignorant to make intelligent technical decisions, instead focuses on bullying employees, framing them as “not team players” in order to claim credit for “saving the organization.” A high-level executive stage-manages an expensive, high-visibility “workshop” but punishes anyone who takes the performance seriously as the basis for thoughtful reform. Claiming to be on a crusade in order to cover up one’s ulterior motives, setting fires in order to play fireman, calling for creativity to look good without any willingness actually to change are all-too-familiar indications of hypocrisy.

Morally, all are equivalent; all undermine the integrity of the institutions involved because of the highly contagious nature of such behavior. Practically speaking, the higher the level the more serious the crime not only because the harm is greater but because the rate of contagion to less corrupt members of the institution is higher.

Maybe we humans have not yet evolved far enough for individual leadership. Maybe abuse of authority by an individual is simply unavoidable when a human is granted the individual authority to exercise both institutional (i.e., the power to make the institution do something) and personal (i.e., the power to punish or reward an individual) power. Maybe managerial posts should, at all levels, be groups. In a small unit—say a dozen scientists in a research team—all could be members of the management group with decisions by consensus; for a slightly larger unit, the management group could be a subset composed of members with short terms of office, set up so that all members of the group have equal opportunity to participate. For leadership of a country, instead of one man being given enormous and effectively arbitrary power as virtual dictator for the term of office, perhaps a team of three leaders for a three-year period with the terms of office staggered would provide a sufficient check on the arbitrary exercise of authority. At all levels, those with the power to order the institution to take action should be carefully and explicitly prohibited from having any input into management of individuals (e.g., hiring, firing, promotions).

Unfortunately, as a society we are far from reaching the point where such issues can even effectively be discussed. Before such a conversation can be productive, we will have to come to a common recognition that power is a privilege the use of which is morally prohibited except where explicitly permitted. That would turn many families and nearly all corporations, bureaucracies, and governments on their heads…hmmm…kind of defines the word “revolution,” doesn’t it?

If anyone sees the relevance of these musings to anything in the real world, feel free to point it out...

No comments: