Principle of Disagreement

Edward Rothstein of the The NY Times has a wonderful summary and set of reflections about a recent Yale conference on strong leadership versus the popular will. Here’s my letter to him:

Dear Mr. Rothstein,

Thank you for the excellent report from the recent Yale conference about leadership and democracy. There is a strand — a view — that may not have been fully revealed at the conference; namely, that all human societies find some blend of hierarchy and democracy in how they govern or manage themselves. Sometimes that blend balances toward one or the other — but there’s always both at work. The discussion about strong leadership – about lions and eagles — sounds like it reflected the uses of hierarchy which, as your fine article pointed out, might be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ — the same as democracy.

Perhaps most critical, though, is your point near the bottom about the principle of disagreement. Think of this in terms of beliefs, behaviors, and attitude — and ask yourself, from what sources do those beliefs, behaviors and attitudes spring so that they become a predictable set of values? How does it happen that a principle of disagreement exists in real life, not just in democractic/hierarchical theory?

(And, quick note: hierarchy itself cannot work well in the absence of some ‘principle of disagreement’. See, for example, the recent Timemagazine piece by the retired general who points out that officers owe their duty to the Constitution. In other words, even within the hierarchy of the military, there is a source for legitimate disagreement.)

There are a variety of well established sources for what makes human belief and behavior predictable — that is, how it might happen that a principle of disagreement becomes habit. In addition to genetics (e.g. evolutionary psychology), human relationships, shared roles and status and shared ideas all shape values.

Those who attended the conference, like your readers, cannot answer your profound questions about the principle of disagreement and virtue without taking a deep breath and ‘seeing’ that these sources of shared values have radically altered as a result of how we live our lives today (versus how the folks who were discussed — Lincoln, Hitler, and so forth — lived theirs).

They — and importantly those who followed their leads — lived out lives mostly in contexts of place: of neighborhood and town and among friends and family so determined. Not all. Not 100%. But mostly. And, the values they predictably shared (e.g. a principle of disgreement; the blend of hierarchy and democracy in problem-solving and government) happened as a consequence of the human relationships, roles, status and ideas they shared because of place. In this sense, place operated like a forge whose heat forced folks to share values so that they could co-exist and achieve what mattered to them.

We don’t. We live in markets, networks, organizations, friends and family. Our shared values derive from relationships that happen in these contexts (e.g. the folks we interact with at work often shape our values more than neighbors whose names we might not even know), from the strong shared roles of customer, employee and investor, and from ideas that spread because of markets and networks. For example, unlike our ancestors whose place-based ignorance stemmed from an absence of new ideas, our ignorance comes from too many ideas and the lack of information about which are accurate and useful (see, e.g., the widely shared idea of ‘WMD’ a few years back – the use of a powerful idea in our new contexts of markets and networks by leaders more bent on hierarchy than democracy — importantly, even within their own organizations, let alone the nation.).

One of the predictable patterns of belief, behavior and attitude in our new world of markets, etc. is ‘either/or-ism’: the all-or-nothing, on-off, ‘red’ versus ‘blue’ pattern that so quickly turns any interesting question into declarations instead of real debates. This is not a healthy sign for any real principle of disagreement.

And, yet, if we examine our life in organizations, we find that the blend of hierarchy and democracy quite often offers a healthier support for the principle of disagreement than our life in markets. Markets aren’t very promising contexts in which to disagree in constructive ways. We make choices in markets (Pepsi v. Coke; Republican v. Democrat; and so forth). But, even when we vociferously support our choices, we are not engaged in either real debate or real dissent. We are more likely acting out our role as consumers (or investors) in an unbelievable large context (markets) where our voices aren’t actually heard in the manner of dissent or problem solving about truly shared purposes so much as feedback to those selling us ideas and products.

This behavior in markets is useful. It does provide feedback. But we should not confuse it with the principle of disagreement in the context of family, among friends or in organizations. It is in those contexts where our roles, relationships and ideas must blend to help us make choices that actually go beyond consumption to some form of the ‘common good’ — that is, toward the identification and implementation of shared purposes that matter to our lives together with other people we actually know and care about.

This is why the blend of hierarchy and democracy — and the presence or absence of leaders who interact with followers in testing the limits of both — matters much more in organizations than markets.

When I look at organizations that are even reasonably succeeding in today’s chaotic world, I tend to see a principle of disagreement that is healthy and predictable. When I look at organizations that are failing (e.g. the Bush White House), I do not see this.

Your excellent article is profoundly important in it’s note about the essential nature of a principle of disagreement. Now, let’s hope that more and more of our colleagues and others will start connecting the dots of where, why and how such a principle thrives versus does not — and why it matters to the safety, sanity and sustainability of the planet.

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