How do we reconcile these two realities that seem to seriously clash? On the one hand, we have the reality of our need for autonomy, intrinsic motivation, and motivation that comes from pride and a strong sense of linkage between what we do and the results we get. The importance of the individual. On the other hand we have the reality of massive interdependency, an economic and social reality in which the individual is noise in the signal, static in the crowd. Our own personal experience tells us quite loudly that we’re unique, irreplaceable, and essential. Yet the world continues with the loss of any one individual – whether that loss is to discouragement, distraction, or death. What does progress look like in a world in which individual autonomy and social interdependency have seemingly come into conflict?
The reality seems to be what’s described by systems thinkers – we live in a world that arises out of the interaction of millions and billions of people and can be traced back to no one individual. Yet the societies that have tried to build on this realization have turned into socialist nightmares – exercises in the denigration of the individual that have not only turned out to be spectacular social failures but have invariably crushed the individual.
Hitler’s secretary Taudle Junge shared this about the man. “He didn’t think in human dimensions. Humanity was never of any importance to him. It was always the concept of the superman … the nation, always this abstract image of a vast German Reich, powerful and strong. But the individual never mattered to him. Though he always said he wanted to make people happy – he started a variety of welfare and recreational organizations in the Third Reich – personal happiness was never of the slightest importance to him.”
Happiness of the individual has to matter. Liberation leadership – leadership that leads to the discovery and realization of the self – has been the leadership that has gradually, steadily and surely triumphed over the model of controlling leadership that denies the individual’s experience and need for autonomy.
And yet, societies are emergent realities – products of the interaction of lots and lots of individuals who must, by definition, be expendable, replaceable, ultimately unimportant to the integrity of the whole.
Specialization has meant that we’re increasingly likely to find ourselves a part of some greater whole over which we feel as though we have little or no control. If you are an employee of IBM, you are one of 366,486; at HP, you’re one of 156,000; at Wal-Mart, you’re one of 1.9 million. It’s terribly difficult to make one’s mark, to feel engaged in making a difference, in such loud and crowded places.
Our impact on the whole, our contribution to society, is not some abstraction – it comes through a very real and intimate part of our lives: our work. Einstein changed the world through his work in theoretical physics. Edison changed the world through his work in technological invention. John Lennon changed the world through his work as a singer and songwriter. It is through our work that we do or don’t change the world and as our tools for doing our work become bigger and more unwieldy – as the tools we use are social constructs as massive and full of specialization and process as a corporation – we lose room for self-awareness and realization that seems to precede the acts of genius – or the inspired moments that even the most banal of us experience – the acts that have moved us forward.
The reality is one of massive interdependency – ask anyone who has tried to get a building permit, or make a change to processes within a corporation or tried to change behaviors of groups as varied as gangs prone to violence and consumers prone to carbon emissions. Yet the reality is also one of individuals struggling to hear and be heard, generally resigned to having little or no impact on their world – and by extension the very definition of their lives. Every individual is outnumbered 6 billion to 1.
The beginnings of a reconciliation of this will necessarily come from within the corporation. The corporation is the dominant institution of our time and any significant social change will begin there. Further, the corporation is now the place where the individual most consciously chooses to contribute – the tool for work. Yet this has been made backwards, and too often the individual has instead been expected to be the tool for the work of the corporation rather than the corporation being a tool for the work of the individual.
A large part of what is missing an awareness of systems and systems dynamics. The corporation is a complex system that is, too often, the product of pronouncement and top-down dictates. The West has tried this before, this reliance on dictatorship: the medieval church, the renaissance-era nation-state, and the bank of the era of JP Morgan. Such dictatorship work for a while – for as long as a genius like Rothschild or Henry VIII is creating a social construct and hasn’t time or ability to bring along the masses whose confusion would only slow the process. But once these institutions are living, breathing, essential parts of our daily life, societies next step for progress is the step of dispersion – dispersing the power over these institutions through revolutions like democracy and disintermediation. The corporation has reached a similar place, a place where the genius of founders must become the common sense of the masses – the very definition of civilization and its progress. (Think of the genius of Isaac Newton to have invented calculus and the progress of civilization that now depends on millions of children each year gaining the same tool of calculus. Newton showed genius by creating calculus, but society has massively benefited by its popularization.)
Banking disintermediation – the process of dispersing the power of powerful bankers across the population – relied upon a number of innovations. Computers, fiat money, central banks, monetary policy, Keynesian theory, and credit cards were all essential to reaching the point at which credit was the choice of the individual and not the banker, a world where labor has become the capitalist.
The transformation of the corporation will be similar, reliant on a variety of changes, shifts, and new technologies. No one thing will transform the corporation, yet one technology that will prove essential is technology to better enable the individual to see the global impact of his or her local actions. The absence of such technology today is glaring in its omission. Because it is missing, management cannot trust the individual to act upon individual interests. In lieu of visibility and clear consequences we have control. No one wins in this scenario.
There are some systems tools already, tools that help the individual to see her part in the whole. And this is the paradox: we’re social animals and we can’t realize our individual potential without realizing our place in the whole. Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize winning contemporary of Einstein, said that atoms had always been thought of as things but perhaps should better be thought of as relationships. Desmond Tutu said that “A person is a person through other persons.” Perhaps we, too, should be thought of as defined by relationships. We are wired to compete but less obviously, we’re wired to cooperate, to hold open doors, to feel joy at the accomplishment of others, to see our joy in life echoed in the eyes of another, an echo that amplifies our own.
We’ve woken up in a world of massive interdependency, a world in which we depend on others beyond our line of sight. Major parts of our lives have disappeared beyond the horizon. The response to that is not to retreat back into worlds of our own making. Nor is it to cry out for control over behavior from strong leaders who will save us from our own selfishness and petty interests. Rather, it is to enhance our capacity to see, and enjoy or suffer the consequences of, the ripple effects of our actions.
Individuals need linkage between their actions and the outcomes. Barring this, they become disengaged. Corporations have become places where the game is not so much about the linkage between individual action and outcome as it is the politics of recognition, a game that swings in and out of phase with the larger game of making a real and positive difference. Once corporations put in place tools that allow the individual to choose actions without being coerced, enjoying or suffering the consequences just like an agent in a market economy, the corporation will have begun the transformation towards becoming a tool rather than treating the individual as the tool. And as individuals again gain autonomy and control over their own lives, the individual will thrive. And as happens every time the individual is allowed to become more, society thrives in unpredictable and amazing ways. On the surface, this transformation of the corporation will make it seem as though we’re entering a time of great change. In fact, it will merely be proof again that social transformation begins as it always has – with individual transformation.