Vision 101

Leaders prompt alignment. With alignment comes a flow of human energy and creativity that advances whatever cause is underway. Through this flow endeavors deemed important are initiated, actions are taken, and change occurs within a proposed framework.

Alignment is produced in three ways: integrity, vision, and fear – greed (see previous posting). Leaders lead because of their ability to draw upon at least one of these three dimensions “…in the exercise of power within a social system to produce alignment.” Of course, the greater the skills leaders have in more than one dimension, the more fluid their movement from one dimension to another as circumstances warrant, and ultimately, the more effective they will be.

Leaders who can exercise more than one dimension possess the wherewithal to use “vision” as a way to both inspire and motivate. While somewhat synonymous, the terms “inspire” and “motivate” represent a critical duality that is central to the importance of vision in the repertoire of tools used by effective leaders. Inspiration originates when there is sufficient detachment from what is or a future extrapolated from what was to see possibilities otherwise missed. Motivation is fueled by an expectation of comfort when that which is feared is dismissed and the stress of achievement is diminished. Leaders are able to use inspiration and motivation at the right time and in the correct context to build momentum and keep the flow going.

The diagram below illustrates the dual nature of vision. As an organizatio – represented by the green triangle – moves through time toward an endpoint on the horizon, it passes through its “vision” – illustrated by the yellow circle – of what it anticipates it will become or what will influence it. Philosophical ideals and spiritual values pre-date and eclipse the organization and provide a guiding moral framework that is timeless in its relevance and significance.

While the pursuit of abstractions such as peace, justice, love, and freedom is a source of inspiration, it lacks the type of structured approach required to convert the obtuse into the actionable. At some point people benefit from a clear picture of what can be reasonably expected after a finite period during which people invest their time, energy, and resources to have the intended results. Vision in this practical sense relates to the mission of a project, goals and objectives of an organization, and the “nuts and bolts” details of strategies and tactics required to complete the mission. But it is not the simple restatement of these elements a la Dilbert. Instead, it is a story told that depicts what reality might look like if the mission is completed successfully.

Just as leadership is about alignment, vision is about change – seeing it, relating to it, describing it and making it happen. Leaders who are in command of the tools of vision tell stories that inspire people at their higher levels of functioning and motivate them to take necessary action in giving practicality to that which is dreamed. Great leaders are involved; they embody the changes they are attempting to influence rather than remaining aloof and attempting to control them remotely.

A significant part of the story a powerful leader tells is not only in words but by example in deed. The leader espouses the principle in clear wording, such as the following extract from Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech delivered to more than 250,000 on August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC:

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

It’s no wonder Dr. King could lead thousands – he posited the principles as a dream worth striving for, outlined the very trying and difficult steps that would have to be taken to make the dream reality, walked the talk hand-in-hand with others, and put his life on the line to stand tall in what he believed possible for his country and its people.

Of course, Dr. King was a “student” of another great leader in this respect, Mahatma Gandhi. The following extract from a brief biography on Gandhi’s life by B.R. Nanda sums up the compelling nature of a leader who strikes a dynamic balance between the philosophical and the practical:

His genius, so to speak, was an infinite capacity for taking pains in fulfillment of a restless moral urge. His life was one continuous striving, an unremitting sadhana, a relentless search for truth, not abstract or metaphysical truth, but such truth as can be realized in human relations. He climbed step by step, each step no bigger than a man’s, till when we saw him at the height he seemed more than a man. ‘Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe’, wrote Einstein, ‘that such a one as this, ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.’ If at the end he seemed like no other man, it is good to remember that when he began he was like any other man.”

The result of his strong stands on principle and living the life of change – being the change – was a key factor in India gaining independence. His strict adherence to the concept of non-violence and non-resistance sets a stellar example for others to follow in their struggles with freedom and justice. And the lessons of his life continue to inform and influence generations of Indians as they build on the foundation of self-determination he laid and propel his beloved country into prominence as an economic and political global powerhouse.

The Dalai Lama, political leader of the Tibetan government in exile and spiritual guide for thousands of people around the world, offers yet another powerful example of vision in the ethereal married with the practical. Below is a extract from his commentary entitled, “A Human Approach to World Peace“:

Science and technology, though capable of creating immeasurable material comfort, cannot replace the age-old spiritual and humanitarian values that have largely shaped world civilization, in all its national forms, as we know it today. No one can deny the unprecedented material benefit of science and technology, but our basic human problems remain; we are still faced with the same, if not more, suffering, fear, and tension. Thus it is only logical to try to strike a balance between material developments on the one hand and the development of spiritual, human values on the other. In order to bring about this great adjustment, we need to revive our humanitarian values.”

Again, overarching philosophical ideals and spiritual principles are associated with the conundrum of daily issues that plague humanity. The Tibet issue is one of three commitments made by the Dalai Lama wherein he gives unwavering focus. It is in this arena on the world stage that principle is carried into action for all to see and learn. This is vision in its purest form. No one can ask more of a leader than that!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Monday, February 13, 2006

Leadership 101

Last week was spent on the road checking in with clients and helping them manage changes within their organizations. Oftentimes, the causes for such changes are presented to me as breakdowns in communication, unrealized opportunities, performance problems, inadequate adaptation, and gaps in the flow of resources. The clients’ default reactions are hierarchical: someone needs to be contracted or hired, someone else is opting to retire, others need to be reassigned, and others still, let go. However, the reality is bigger and more complex than having a few people go and bringing in fresh blood. Change, in a flurry of what’s working, what’s not, and what could work better, first requires that these disparate conditions be placed within a framework. This is followed by convening people whose interactions have the potential to make a positive difference for their organization within that framework. Their interactions lead to more appropriate and measured actions through goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics.

As explored more fully in an earlier posting, organizations consist of sustained conversations – the basis of all human social behavior. If one wants to change an organization, change the conversations its members are having. On one level this is simple and straightforward. Matching forums with meaningful agendas is at the heart of what strategic framing and organization design are all about. People draw upon their power to convene within a social system to setup a wide range of conversations and sustain those that are deemed the most important. Of course, the point of these conversations when establishing or sustaining an organization is to gain alignment – the energy source for growth, progress, and success of any organization.

There is a clear association between those who have the power to convene for alignment and leadership. In fact, while there are hundreds of definitions for leadership, the one I use is “the exercising of power by an individual within a social system to produce alignment.” Productive, collective effort within a social system requires people to be pulling on the rope in the same direction. And through that alignment, motivation is stimulated.

Alignment occurs in three ways:

  1. Integrity. Just as an organization has integrity, so do people. Purpose: why am I here; principles: what do I stand for; intentions: what am I up to, constitute the foundation of institutional and personal integrity. When I feel that my integrity is held in the integrity expressed by others and, ultimately, their organization, I am motivated to participate in what they are doing to see how our collective efforts can be leveraged.
  2. Vision. Imagining a world where one’s purpose, principles, and intentions play out so that others can see it, too, and want to be part of making it happen is a powerful act of vision. Any vision is based first in personal experience. When it is presented to others such that they can shape it with their own dreams and create a shared view of what is possible, the vision becomes an engaging, motivating force.
  3. Fear – Greed. Visions cannot become reality without drawing upon the talents and skills of those who do not necessarily align with the values of integrity or share the same vision. Their motivation comes from a combination of “what’s in it for me” and “what will happen to me if I don’t participate.” The fear – greed continuum appeals to the baser instincts of people in areas where their absence of detachment affects their decisions. For the vast majority, it is easier to do what one is told, to do one’s job, to follow the rules. Alignment means playing along to enjoy the benefits and avoid the pitfalls. But it is a route that is susceptible to the corruptive forces of the hierarchy as explored in a previous posting.

Depending on the circumstances, leaders draw upon the energies available within each of the three types of alignment to advance the organizations they lead. Some have integrity so unquestionably solid it compels others to follow despite not having a clear picture of what the world would look like if everyone behaved according to these values or a hierarchical structure upon which to calculate the cost, risk, and benefit of participation. The most notable of such leaders represent particular spiritual or philosophical belief systems that became the cornerstones for the most persistent social systems in human history. Certainly the evidence is strong that there is much to be gained from fronting one’s core values as a key element in leadership. But, not everyone is ready to cast their lot with someone solely on values alone. This may garner alignment at the outset, but they need more to stay aligned.

Some leaders are able to describe through words and graphics how the world could look if a particular set of core values were adopted such that many others are immediately engaged by it, resonate with it, take it as their own, and start down the path toward making it reality; the vision of one becomes the vision of many. However, the more likely scenario is that one person’s vision matches the visions of others to one degree or another, but not completely. In this case, the effective leader introduces a process by which multiple visions are brought together into one shared vision that holds critical elements for all who want to pursue it. While a shared vision produces alignment, it commands the strongest buy-in only by those who were there when it was created. The leader must stay vigilant in continually representing the vision to those who are new to the organization and in some instances prompt further adaptation of the vision to hold others who come in later.

With both integrity and vision, the virtual or physical presence of and interaction with the leader is essential to maintain alignment. Collective efforts that have dependency on one leader are at risk to go astray unless a formal system is setup to manage the behavior of people in the organization. Formal systems provide boundaries that determine who is in and who is out of an organization, enable the formation of hierarchies, enact rules, regulations, policies, and procedures, and establish processes that manage the work of organizations. Within a formal system, the vision of the organization is translated into sets of actionable goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics. Alignment is achieved when people work these plans. Some leaders are effective enforcing this type of alignment within the formal systems by encouraging them through the promise of reward should they accomplish what they are responsible to do and threatening them with undesirable consequences should they fail. It is the classic case of “carrot and stick” motivation. In other words, the fear – greed continuum is alive and well.

As mentioned earlier, my work with people in client organizations is about framing their circumstances so that an appropriate set of conversations are convened and the participants can make a positive difference in helping their organization adapt. The evolving design of the organization is based on the results of certain conversations that need to happen: does the organization need to recall its integrity – get back to its roots, so to speak; does it need to renew its vision – see itself in an entirely different way filled with more possibilities; does it need to redirect its formal system – become more consequent and disciplined. These questions require different conversations and depending on whether the organizational alignment is better derived from integrity, vision, or fear – greed determines the leadership skills required to make the conversations happen.

Therein lays the challenge of doing my work well – matching the skills of leaders with the circumstances where they will prompt alignment. And if there are no immediate leaders available with the requisite skills, I coach those who show talent and interest so they strengthen their “toolkits,” gain confidence in their capabilities, and embark upon leading in new ways under unfamiliar situations. And helping those people become more evolved, well-rounded, and flexible leaders is what makes doing this work worthwhile!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Affiliations: Cycles of Corruption and Renewal

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

A Richer Concept of Ground Truth

In a previous post, I explored the role people play as “social sensors” in the generation of “ground truth.” A colleague of mine, Ross MacDonald, who is co-authoring a book with me about collective leadership in the non-profit sector, suggested that ground truth is a far richer concept than what I had explained in my posting. He offered to write a series of “articles” about ground truth that would provide different ways of seeing how this concept could be understood and applied in diverse social settings. Because ground truth is so essential to healthy adaptation in social systems and is integral to the design of successful frameworks for change, his offer could not have been more timely and appreciated. What follows is the posting of his first article. I thank you in advance for giving his ideas careful consideration. We both look forward to your comments! And now, Ross…

In his aforementioned blog posting, Steve Bosserman provides a brief but thoughtful definition of ground truth in a predominantly social context. This response is the first in a series of short articles exploring more fully the concept of ground truth. The entries are based on my work creating sustainable links within and among community groups, government entities, businesses, education, and individual – especially those people who have been historically ignored or poorly served. This first entry looks closely at the term “ground truth” in order to further sensitize our understanding of its applications to adaptive learning in social systems.

Ground truth refers to the information provided by people and instruments on site which assesses the accuracy and value of information and inferences derived from more removed sources, such as aerial photographs and satellite imagery. Consider for example that the French seem to be the first to use balloons for military aerial reconnaissance during a conflict with Austria in 1794. We will assume for the moment that a person making observations from a balloon constitutes remote sensing and imagine as well that civilian informants, reconnaissance patrols, and secret agents provided additional data on the ground. Taken together, observations from the scared soul in the balloon and additional reports from those on the ground enabled more effective strategic and tactical adjustments. This deliberate triangulation of information is the fundamental process for seeking ground truth.

Uses of the term ground truth are easily found today in a wide range of fields including agriculture, anthropology, biology, earth sciences, geography, landscape design, library sciences, medicine, music, physics, and zoology. A team of geologists, for example, might physically examine the ground at a specific site to confirm the nature and possible causes of temperature changes detected from satellite imaging. Should the team document a change in underground geothermal activity on site, then the remotely-detected temperature shift is better understood. As remote sensing technology has advanced, it has became less dependent on human operators / observers, leading to an increased demand for humans to do something on site to authenticate data and sharpen inferences. As a result the term ground truth is entering the public parlance.

So the term “ground truth” is both a label for a process and a label for a product. The process of ground truth is to have a person or persons at a given site with instruments so as to verify and sensitize remotely sensed phenomena. The product of ground truth is more accurate and reliable information.

The very label ground truth has appeal – but if understood superficially it is more of an appeal to shallow hubris than to good thinking. The term lays claims to “truth,” and truth, after all, connotes a definitive and irrefutable reality. How satisfying it is to capture the high ground by positioning one’s belief as truth! A famous scene from Woody Allen’s movie “Annie Hall” illustrates. In this scene, Alvy (played by Allen) and his charming girlfriend Annie (Diane Keaton) are waiting in line for a movie. Alvy becomes increasingly annoyed with what he believes are the empty and inaccurate pontifications of a pseudo-intellectual also in line. Alvie, convinced that the pedantic snob is completely mis-representing Marshall McLuhan, enacts an everyman fantasy when he pulls the real Marshall McLuhan (playing himself) from out of a billboard. McLuhan, at Alvie’s direction, beratingly refutes the veracity of the annoying snob, stating “You know nothing of my work!” – much to the satisfaction of Alvie and everyone else who has wished for such a moment.

Ahh, ground truth! However, as subsequent blog entries will explore, this level of truth is indeed elusive. As tempting as Alvie’s triumph is to all of us, we should be skeptical of such absolute truths whether seen in the fiction of a movie, proclaimed from intolerant political or religious pulpits, or announced in scientific press conferences. It is important to distinguish multiple truths and their small “t’s” from “The Truth” and its capital “T.” A future blog entry will reveal the higher value of multiple truths to understanding and improving human social systems over the misleading value of a claim to a single Truth.

The “ground” in the label ground truth also explicitly lays claim to a tempting position: the false pride of being on solid turf in one’s assertions. Being grounded stands in implied contrast to an ethereal disconnection from practical matters. As in Truth with a capital “T,” there is a temptation in the label of “ground” to validate one’s belief by simply planting a sign claiming one owns the Truth. Very familiar but counterproductive language often accompanies such hollow claims: “I’ve been doing this for thirty years and believe you me . . .” In this kind of claim, a person is essentially saying, “because I am more grounded than anyone else” (“thirty years doing this”), “my truth is The Truth” (“believe you me”). By falsely laying claim to the most solid ground, this kind of approach attempts to gain validity by rendering other truths invalid. Such a mixture of brute power with self-aggrandizing opinions is directly antithetical to the search for multiple perspectives and more sophisticated reasoning about them which characterizes ground truth inquiry.

An interesting case is Lloyd Bentson’s famous retort to Dan Quayle’s self-comparison to John F. Kennedy during the October 1988 vice presidential debate. Bentsen’s ground truth about the comparison? “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Bentsen grounds his position by reminding us that he “served with”, “knew” and was friends with Kennedy. Although the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket suffered a landslide loss, Bentsen struck a public chord. Many people and certainly many democrats believed as well that Quayle paled in comparison to JFK. Bentsen’s remark aligned with the less dramatically staged opinions of many others, profoundly stigmatizing Quayle’s vice presidency. But we must remember that regardless of what one thinks of Quayle and regardless of how well Bentsen positioned his analysis; Bentsen’s statement was only one observation from one source. That so many agreed with it and that it had such a profound effect derives from the alignment of all those ground truths, not just from Bentsen’s moment on stage.

Ground truth refers to both a product and a process which, despite potential for prideful misappropriation, is of tremendous value for improving organized human activities.

At its best, ground truth labels a set of practices by which multiple sources yield better knowledge and so empower humans to adapt and improve their practices. This is the very work we do in my company, ground truth consulting. In my next entry, I will discuss particular ground truth processes and underlying ethical principle by discussing two specific projects: a Himalayan eco-tourism project in the north of India and an upcoming, collaboratively produced book on academic leadership.

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Syllogisms about Power, Corruption, and Change

A syllogism about power:

  1. Human social systems / institutions are hierarchical and concentrate power at the top of their structures
  2. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – Lord Acton
  3. Human social systems / institutions will inevitably become corrupt


The answer is rooted in the interplay between our basic instincts for survival coupled with our evolved reasoning capabilities as Homo sapiens. Our advanced thinking capacity provides us with the ability to make choices whether to spend, save, keep, or give of our time, talent, skill, experience, insight, and energy. Like most animals, we care for ourselves by spending for what we need in the moment yet saving some for later in the event we need it. However, only humans have the option to accumulate and keep more than is ever needed or give the excess to others who are less fortunate so that their needs are covered as well. While the “spend and save” dichotomy is fundamental within many animal species, the “keep and give” dichotomy resides solely in the realm of higher reasoning exhibited by Homo sapiens.

Having the chance to acquire more than what is needed is a compelling motivation to discover and exploit opportunities. But what if discovery, exploitation, and gain from opportunities deprive others of similar opportunities? Or what if the consequences are even direr in that not only do others have no opportunities to do similarly, but their basic survival is at risk?

The “keep and give” dichotomy becomes a double-edged sword. On the one hand, human intelligence provides the means by which we can make or take more than we need. On the other hand, this same intelligence gives us the insight to heed a noble principle or ideal and choose to give what we have made or taken, yet do not need, to others whose survival is at stake. This is a difficult choice. For many who are caught up in the fast track of making and taking, to give does not feature very prominently and greed sets in. For others, it is not the rush to accumulate more that drives them, but quite the opposite – the fear of loss and being put into a situation where there is not enough to survive. Regardless, too many burn up their worth as creative and innovative human beings along the fear-greed continuum.

Figure 1 above illustrates a simple hierarchical social system formed by the three basic cornerstones: fear – greed – principle / ideal. Over time, however, the triangle shrinks in height until the principles and ideals that were so sterling and compelling at the outset become lost in a sea of the platitudinous and pedestrian and their relevance and influence are lost. Hierarchy, mired in the mud of fear and greed, has little nobility; it is corrupted.

Any hierarchical social system begins with a balance of principles and ideals worthy of aspiration and hope linked to the daily realities associated with fear and greed. A social system framed by such noble thoughts seeks to give all a better life. The preamble to the Constitution of the United States offers an example of these worthy ideals framing the social system of a nation:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

What really happens, though?

A syllogism about corruption:

  1. Corrupt human social systems benefit their ruling minorities at the expense of their ruled majorities
  2. Ruling minorities make rules that preserve their social systems and concentrate power further
  3. Corrupt human social systems insulate their ruling minorities from their ruled majorities

Beginning in 2003, there occurred numerous instances of abuse and torture of prisoners held in the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq (aka. Baghdad Correctional Facility), by personnel of the 372nd Military Police Company, CIA officers and contractors involved in the occupation of Iraq.

An internal criminal investigation by the United States Army commenced in January, 2004, and subsequently reports of the abuse, as well as graphic pictures showing American military personnel in the act of abusing prisoners, came to public attention the following April, when a 60 Minutes news report (April 28) and an article by Seymour M. Hersh in The New Yorker magazine (posted online on April 30 and published days later in the May 10 issue) reported the story.

The resulting political scandal was said to have damaged the credibility and public image of the United States and its allies in the prosecution of ongoing military operations in the Iraq War, and was seized upon by critics of U.S. foreign policy, who argued it was representative of a broader American attitude and policy of disrespect and violence toward Arabs. The U.S. Administration and its defenders argued that the abuses were the result of independent actions by low-ranking personnel, while critics claimed that authorities either ordered or implicitly condoned the abuses and demanded the resignation of senior Bush administration officials.

”In Address, Bush Says He Ordered Domestic Spying” by David E. Sanger, NY Times, 18 December 2005:

WASHINGTON, Dec. 17 – President Bush acknowledged on Saturday that he had ordered the National Security Agency to conduct an electronic eavesdropping program in the United States without first obtaining warrants, and said he would continue the highly classified program because it was “a vital tool in our war against the terrorists.”

In an unusual step, Mr. Bush delivered a live weekly radio address from the White House in which he defended his action as “fully consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities.”

He also lashed out at senators, both Democrats and Republicans, who voted on Friday to block the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act, which expanded the president’s power to conduct surveillance, with warrants, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The revelation that Mr. Bush had secretly instructed the security agency to intercept the communications of Americans and terrorist suspects inside the United States, without first obtaining warrants from a secret court that oversees intelligence matters, was cited by several senators as a reason for their vote.

”Katrina’s Racial Wake” by Salim Muwakkil, In These Times, 7 September 2005:

Hurricane Katrina and its disastrous aftermath have stripped away the Mardi Gras veneer and casino gloss of the Gulf Coast region, and disclosed the stark disparities of class and race that persist in 21st century America.

The growing gap between the rich and the poor in this country is old but underreported news – perhaps in part because so many of the poor also are black. Accordingly, many Americans were surprised that most of the victims of the New Orleans flood were black: Their image of the Crescent City had been one of jazz, tasty cuisine and the good-natured excesses of its lively festivals.

Where did all those black people come from, they wondered; and where were the white victims?

African Americans make up about 67 percent of the population of New Orleans, but clearly they were disproportionately victimized by the hurricane and its aftermath. And while blacks make up just about 20 percent of those living along the Gulf coast of Mississippi, their images dominated media representations of the victims there as well. In addition to race, the common denominator between blacks in both states is poverty. The “Big Easy,” has a poverty rate of 30 percent, one of the highest of any large city. The state of Mississippi has the highest percentage of people living in poverty of any state and the second-lowest median income. The state’s Gulf Coast experienced an economic boom when casinos were legalized in the early ’90s, but that new affluence did little to ameliorate the race/class divide that has deep roots in the region.

Among other things, the monster storm blew away the pretense that race has ceased to matter in the United States. Media coverage of this major disaster has made it clear that poverty and race are highly correlated.

Katrina also unearthed other uneasy truths; including the glaring ineptitude of the federal government, the domestic consequences of the illegal Iraqi invasion and the media’s proclivity to employ racial stereotypes.

Critics complain that the overwhelming blackness of the victims may have been a factor in the government’s apparent slowness to respond. In a reflection of popular black opinion, hip-hop artist Kanye West went off-script during an NBC benefit concert for Katrina victims and declared, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

How did we get to this?

Hierarchical social systems are in a continual state of flux. Figure 2 above introduces some of these dynamics. These systems begin with lofty ideals and noble principles. This is the realm of the abstract, intangible, and philosophical where people in relationship to people posit their aspirations, dreams, thoughts, and feelings from which they describe and envision a better reality.

Such ideals do not remain in a pristine and unchallenged state. Like the people who populate them, social systems have basic needs / resource requirements that must be met in order for them to function. These resources have to be extracted / exploited and converted / deployed so the system can utilize / consume them. In other words, people in relationships to “things” make the system function and, hopefully, engage in behaviors that put the vision into practice.

People have different motivators that prompt their participation in a social system. Some are engaged by an envisioned end state constructed through relationships to people. Others are compelled by their relationships to things – the anticipation of rewards for contribution or a sense of obligation. Moving from vision to action puts the social system on a slippery slope toward compromising its values. Corruption sets in as anticipation of rewards gives way to greed, a sense of obligation succumbs to abject fear, and guiding principles fade from view.

However, the intention people have for a social system is to remain within the middle – a “dynamic balance zone” – where forces from the less evolved side of human nature that drag the system into the clutches of a fear-greed continuum are matched by forces resulting from new personalities and structures in the system that renew the vision and exalt the ideals once again. This dynamic balance zone is where relationships to people and things are positioned within a broader, more “ecological” context. Such positioning enables members of the system to take responsibility for the effect their actions have on others in the system and be held accountable for the consequences of their behaviors overall.

And that means what?

A syllogism about change:

  1. Corrupt human social systems are vulnerable to change
  2. Subversive groups form within ruled majorities, gain power, and force agendas of change on the ruling minorities
  3. Corrupt human social systems are supplanted

A human social system is corrupted through the increased infatuation of its members in their relationships to things rather than their relationships to themselves and others. This love of the material immerses people in the fear-greed continua and distances people from one another. This distancing is a critical determinant of how the social system will function because it establishes a condition where the consequence of one’s behavior on others is not directly experienced. In other words, there is an isolation / insulation of people in the ruling minority from the ruled majority. This breakdown in causality might be useful in the military where commanders issue orders that put soldiers in harm’s way in an effort to attack or defend. In a social system where the general health and well-being of members is contingent on socially responsible and ecologically balanced actions such a breakdown can lead to disastrous outcomes if the ruled majority pursues countermeasures; e.g., Barbara Bush:

And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them.

The degree of corruption is offset by degree of affiliation. Just as getting mired in fear and greed isolates people from one another, the formulation, articulation, and pursuit of a noble principle / ideal brings people together. No meaningful collective action can occur without people first agreeing on what they want to have happen as a result – envisioning a future worth achieving.

Figure 3 above illustrates these two counter-balancing dynamics: on the one hand, more fear and greed, more corruption; more principles and ideals, less corruption; and, on the other hand, more principles and ideals, more affiliation; more fear and greed, less affiliation. Of course, in a complex system these dynamics are playing out continuously and in a highly unpredictable manner. The only assurance we have is that there are as many or more ways to affiliate with others for mutual benefit across the community as there are opportunities to engage in the pursuit of sheer material gain. It is a question of balance for each of us and to realize that the operation of the whole requires both. How DO we stay centered? Well now, that is THE question!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Friday, December 23, 2005