Even though our thoughts are born in the private spaces of our minds, we humans do not live solitary existences with occluded thinking. At some point we express our private selves in the public arena whether that be a tight-knit circle of family and close friends or an expansive network of colleagues and associates of like-mindedness or dissimilarity.
Statements made about what we think impact others and, in turn, influence what they think.
Depending on how one resonates with the statements of another defines the type and degree of affiliation those two can have, if any. Sometimes what a person says is a statement of principle, ideal, or deeply-held belief that equates to a “universal truth.” Such statements, like motherhood and apple pie, are hard to contest – they just are. How we behave in relation to them, though, is another thing entirely. Many a vicious and deadly conflict across the panorama of human history has been fueled by behaviors in the name of spiritual principles and humanistic ideals like peace, justice, love, and freedom.
How could such noble and lofty ideals be at the heart of destructive behavior? The root cause is not the ideal but how a person chooses to put the ideal or principle into effect. Intangible abstractions like peace, justice, love, and freedom need an image to which people can relate in order for them to see what life would be like if society adhered to these concepts. The tool most commonly used is “vision,” an idealized extrapolation of what the world might be if human relationships, social institutions, and ecological responsiveness at all levels were based on these principles. Visions – no matter how well-articulated and beautiful the potentialities they describe – are nothing more than the well-considered opinions of a select group of people. Visions are not predictors of the future. Still, a common vision of what is possible and highly desired forms a powerful motivating force for the group that shares it. Unfortunately, there are many groups that have a multitude of visions based on the same set of principles and ideals, but pursue different outcomes. These differences have the potential to enrich the pool of possibilities among them, or to become the seeds of conflict and contentiousness. Too often, it is the latter.
Visions are both personal and social. Affiliations begin with principles and ideals expressed by one and shaped by many as a shared vision worth pursuing collectively. While one person can hold an ideal and front a vision with which others are aligned, visions require more than one person to make them a reality. Therefore, the more people become involved the greater the likelihood of success.
Oftentimes, there are not enough people compelled by a vision to carry it into fruition and sustain it over time. This is typical for organizations that begin in a spirited, entrepreneurial manner fueled by the creative energies and ideas of one or a handful of committed individuals. Initial success warrants more resources to feed growth. Not everyone is drawn by the vision or even the ideals that undergird it. Instead, they are attracted by what’s in it for them if they do or what they will miss or lose if they don’t. Once again, the continuum of fear and greed arises to capture the hearts and souls of the unwary and unsuspecting. Ironically, no matter how well-engrained the core values and heartfelt the vision of an organization in the founders and first generation of affiliates, every addition to their ranks who is driven more by fear and greed compromises the original sense of the organization.
People who are not in touch with the principles and ideals that drive them, lack vision, or whose visions are not shared by those with whom they seek to affiliate become complicit in the corruption of any organization they join. Similarly, people new to an organization do not have shared experiences with those who deeply honor its organizing principles and care for its guiding vision. As a result, people not closely aligned to the integrity of an organization, are at risk to undermine it.
This presents an organizational dilemma. No organization is sustainable over time without changing who is affiliated with it, what it does, and the manner with which it does it. Yet by definition these changes introduce other people into the organization who are not necessarily aligned with its founding beliefs. To protect itself in spite of all these variations in attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, an organization converts its philosophical underpinnings into a formal system comprised of rules, regulations, policies, procedures, programs, processes, funding, resources, roles and relationships as a method of control. It becomes institutionalized as a way to preserve itself.
Granted, this institutionalizing of an organization serves to protect its basic integrity, but it does not guarantee long term success. The slide into corruption caused by those whose greed prompts illegal, unethical, and unjust behaviors is sharply reduced, but by penalty of adhering to tradition and adopting an unwieldy conservatism that is slow to adapt. While an organization can explode by paying inadequate attention to risks it is taking, an even more insidious condition is where the lack of appropriate responses to a changing context in which the organization exists causes the organization to implode. Either way, corruption unchecked inevitably leads to decline and, ultimately, destruction.
What, then, keeps an organization going over time – what makes it sustainable? History shows it is the ability of the organization to allow someone or several to restate the underlying principles and ideals upon which it was founded and reframe its vision such that its purpose becomes a revitalizing source of passion for those who are committed to those values; people are inspired and re-energized; the organization is reborn. Sustainability is a function of healthy, recurring life-cycles. They begin in the intellectually pristine space of universal principles and ideals and are followed by the unavoidable corruptive forces of unshared visions and divisive actions driven by individual or collective fear and greed. This prompts the resurrection of originating principles and ideals, renewal of visions of possibilities, and the realignment of integrity. Organizations that persist over time live, die, and are reborn. Their basic “genetic structure” is transferred from generation to generation while its mode of operation and relevance in the social environment that sustains it adapts. The key to long-term success for any organization is how well this cycle is triggered and honored. Sounds easy, but it is a challenge millions have failed to heed!
Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Thursday, January 19, 2006 and updated on Tuesday, January 31, 2006