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May 13, 2006

Letter To Billmon About Leviathan

Dear Billmon,

Thank you for Leviathan. The picture painted of an already-happening police state is a dark one -- yet one I fear millions of us might sleep walk to and through unless we wake up to the new realities and responsibilities of living in the world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families described in On Value and Values: Thinking Differently About We In An Age Of Me.

We can save our nation and the world from the nightmare of Leviathan. But, first, we need to identify who 'we' are -- or, rather, when we are a 'thick we' versus a 'thin we'. The fate of our nation lies with choices made by 'thick we's' as well as 'thin we's". But right now, the choices discussed in popular culture's democracy topic lie mainly with the 'thin we's' -- the we's such as NASCAR dads et al shaped by common interests expressed in markets as opposed to thick we's shaped by actual shared fates and shared purposes for which those in the 'thick we' must hold themselves mutually accountable for implementation. "Thin we's" elect folks (e.g. Bush v. Kerry); 'thin we's' consume things (e.g. hybrids v. Hummers); 'thin we's' -- in roles as consumers and voters and investors -- are courted by thick we's competing in markets and networks.

'Thin we's' matter -- a lot. We cannot shift and evolve without shifts and evolution in thin we's. But, thin we's are not in some sense real we's. Unlike organizations, friends and families, thin we's are more like collectivities of me's. Thin we's never hold themselves accountable as we's for choices. Rather, and this is key, thin we's look to thick we's -- to organizations -- to implement the choices for them and to deal with the consequences of those choices. Thin we's elect officials; thin we's buy cars or computers or cereal; thin we's invest in companies. But it's thick we's who must implement the full range of implications of those choices.

Today, our most powerful thick we's are organizations, not towns or neighborhoods. That is different from the time of Hobbes, from the time of Jefferson.... indeed, from the time of Eisenhower when he warned of the military-industrial complex -- when he foreshadowed a powerful and scary upshot of the transition from a world of place-based thick we's (towns, neighborhoods) to organization-based thick we's in a world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families.

Even Ike could not have had more than a foreshadowing about what happens when networks are thrown into the mix with markets and organizations -- when the strategies of organizations seeking to grow/thrive in the context of markets (including, what Schumpeter described as our political markets) get wired up in networks. Perhaps, the picture you paint in Leviathan would not have surprised Ike -- but he would not have conceived that the reality might have happened in quite this way or with what a friend describes as quite this 'gradual suddenness'.

Today, the most powerful and dangerous thick we's in our nation -- those private sector corporations led by shareholder value fundamentalists, government organizations led by Bush Administration power fundamentalists, and those fundamentalist Christian churches being led by satanists instead of Christians -- are indeed making choices that can lead to the Leviathan nightmare. But, note that such choices are being made far more hierarchically then democratically within the thick we's themselves. The choices jeopardizing our society are coming from the top of such thick we's and they are being made in secret.

That, however, is neither fated nor required by how organizations should or must work. All organizations -- just like all societies -- even Hobbesian ones -- blend hierarchy and democracy. Always. Hobbes' blend was 99.9 parts hierarchy and .1 democracy. But, let's remember that even the fearful Hobbes permitted people to undo the government through revolt.

If you look at choices that matter where you work -- where ever that may be -- the blend is not 99.9 hieararchy to .1 democracy. It may, in your view balance more toward hierarchy. However, having advised/consulted to hundreds of organizations in close to fifty different industries over more than a quarter of century, I observe that the blend has shifted toward more democracy. The challenges of competition demand it. Indeed, the challenges of implementation and performance demand it.

One of the great failures of the Bush Administration comes from the shared beliefs and behaviors of Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and others who simply and stunningly have not had executive experience in this new world where organizations cannot succeed with 99H/1D approaches. While I personally believe far too many critical choices in organizations are still made far too hierarchically and secretly, I cannot from personal experience or observation point to a single top management group of a successful company on the planet who continue to use 1970s H/D mixes to meet the needs of 21st century performance. Not one. Instead, what I read/observe daily about the Bush administration and, consequently, what we all read daily about the trail of failure and incompetence that follows in the wake of their outdated 99H/1D bet on hierarchy. (Indeed, I believe we can bet that the only effective part of the Bush Administration -- the part run by Rove for the past many years -- uses a different blend of H and D. Why? Because that Rovian part is focused on actually solving real problems against which they have to hold themselves accountable for actual -- not made-up -- performance.)

The shift in corporations, non-profits and the hinterlands of government enterprises not yet infected with the Bush approach has not gone to .1 H/99.9D. I'm not saying that. Nor do I believe such an extreme imbalance in the direction of democracy is more promising than Hobbes. Not even the Athenians had 99.9D/.1H. But, the shift is on -- especially with regard to issues such as quality, customer orientation, front-line problem solving and so forth. What has not happened, however, is a shift toward a more blended approach on issues that cut to the heart of what a corporation stands for and how the vision/mission/strategy of the corporation -- the common good of that particular thick we - contributes to the greater good of the planet. There we continue to see hierarchy and secrecy -- we see after the fact attempts at 'buy in' instead of before the fact inclusiveness and shared problem solving. One can be dead certain, for example, that the phone companies did not widely discuss and debate within their respective thick we's the choice about whether to hand over the phone records to NSA. (And, no surprise, we may now see that those executives have condemned their employees, their investors and their customers in ways that a more open, better blended democratic and hierarchical process would have avoided.)

You rightly worry in Leviathan about the profound effects of habits formed in organizations where, in our roles as executives and employees, we make assumptions about the values and purposes associated with nanny networks, security cameras, political speech and so forth. OnVVS points out that our most predictable beliefs and behaviors (which I equate with our actual values as opposed to just abstract ones) derive from a blend of relationships, roles and ideas. All these sources of shared values most powerfully reinforce each other when we are part of a thick we who share meaningful parts of fates and purposes together -- friends and family to be sure -- but, in our 21st century, the context beyond friend and family most present in our lives is that of organization.

Organizations -- again, not limited to work organizations and not limited to private sector either -- are where we interact persistently with other folks beyond friends and family. The habits of belief and behavior we form in organizations are reinforced by relationships there, roles there (e.g. boss/subordinate; marketing v. engineering; team problem solving vs boss/subordinate problem solving) and ideas there (vision, mission, strategy, brand... things like 'shareholder value' and 'the customer is always right' .... indeed, the entire concept of 'corporate values'). What you note as your greatest worry -- point five in Leviathan at the bottom of the section 'Mining Disaster' about the replication of behavior and values found in corporate America -- is one of the core pivot points and generative experience bases in our lives in markets, networks, organizations, friends and families. DeTocqueville reported on the power and potential of replication of behavior and values found in small towns. OnVVs argues that, for tens upon tens of millions of us, small towns are not our thick we's. Organizations are. And, only when we learn to take responsibility together for the choices of our organizations and how those choices contribute to the greater good, will we move and evolve forward. Only then will we revitalize how best to use the inheritance and legacy of the Founders in our dramatically differently structured lives and world. Only then will we migrate and revitalize our democracy where we actually live together with other folks (organizations) instead of only where we make consumption choices (markets).

Yes, we might stumble forward. We might continue our deep seated beliefs and behaviors that have us act as if what happens at work is 'only business' and that somehow we can offset the consequences we cause in pursuit of profits and shareholder value as the obsessive, singular trump card concern by somehow acting righteously as consumers or investors .... that we can somehow in our individual roles oppose our actions as 'me's' and thin we's in ways that effectively counter the unbelievably stronger array of resources and power of our thick we's.

But, we cannot leave a safe, sane and sustainable planet for our kids and their kids if we continue to travel down this path and confuse the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of value over values. We cannot solve the problems of, say, rampant obesity, unaffordable housing, predatory lending, gasoline/oil addictions, environmental depredation, the attack on science -- or government spying -- unless we take a stand inside the organizations where we work that have something to say and do on these matters.

Nor can we sustainably respond to these challenges if we abandon value. Value matters. But, until our brands, strategies, missions, products and services bake equivalent concern for all values, including value, into the common good of our thick we's, we will continue to walk the dark path forward. If we fail to take responsibility for the thick we's in our lives and mindlessly perpetuate allowing secretive, overly hierarchical approaches to reinforce a path we seemingly are on today, then surely the Leviathan follows.

But there's nothing written by Hobbes or anyone else for that matter that says or mandates, "This must be so."

We can act differently. We must. As Gandhi said, 'We must be the change we wish to bring about." In part, that means let's do what we can as "me's" and "thin we's" to elect a president -- and a Senator and a Congressperson and a Governor and a state, county or local legislator -- who have the vision and courage to see this new world we live in and lead us to a more promising future for our children and grandchildren. But, as per Gandhi, we cannot hope to find that path through merely replacing Bush and friends with different and competent leaders who, while benevolent, continue to bet on unsustainable blends of hierarchy and democracy -- or on a concern for value that remains dis-integrated from a concern for values. I can imagine a president who is the leader needed. When I do, I also imagine that she or he reminds us that we are responsible for the future of this planet -- and that our responsibility exists both in choices we make as consumers, voters, investors and other "me or I" roles -- but, especially in and as part of our thick we's. For it's in those we's that the resources, knowledge, information and motivation is most powerful. A president or any leader can show us this path forward. But, we -- as thick we's -- must walk it -- must make and implement and take full responsibility for choices together. It is in our real, every day thick we's -- the thick we's of where we work, learn, play and pray - that we face the choices that will determine the fate of the planet.

And, it's there we can turn things around. The thick we's of auto companies can drop Hummers in favor of hybrids -- if they have the courage to blend concern for value with concern for values. The thick we's of food companies can reverse how their products and advertising and marketing contribute to obesity and other eating disorders. The thick we's of Homeland Security, the FBI, the IRS and others can stand up and say, "Our job is to govern, not to rule with the iron grip demanded to reelect Bush and the ideologues of Bush forever more."

All this is possible -- if thick we's learn and even demand healthier blends of hierarchy and democracy in how they govern themselves.

But, that is most likely to happen when we learn first to 'think differently about we' and about our responsibility to blend our legitimate concern for value with our equally legitimate concern for values.

Posted by Doug Smith on May 13, 2006 04:36 PM | Permalink