Authority needs art to exist – and Art needs authority

Elizabeth 6-19-2014 mmc

It’s no secret I’m a fan of listening. Nor is it news that I’m interested in balance, in brilliance, and in the scaffolding these three can provide for rendering immediately practical the very best of our collective intelligence.

It’s a tall order. it means listening to any “side” we reject reflexively as “not me.” But in my work I’m seeing nothing but evidence that the vastly most effective ideas and actions emerge from the collective intelligence of seeming opponents.

Most recently, I’ve been in the position of supporting the ingelligent and innovative blend of chain of command with more improvisational collaboration.

Warm and cool air gradients collide. The wind blows. Tree branches must bend, their leaves must rustle and sometimes lose hold. Chain of command or improvisation? On whose part? The light changes. Cars stop in one direction and go in the other. Pedestrians cross in the protection the red light, vehicles turning left wait for pedestrians.  Chain of command or improvisation.

School children learn. Eagles and Bison return from the brink of extinction. an Ecuadorian neighborhood ravaged by the earthquake begins to rebuild.

Each of these circumstances maps onto an idea weathering the landscape of my mind. Something roughly fitting the pas de deux of rules and spontenaity – authority and whimsy – convention and innovation – chain of command and improvisational art – structure and change. It is an idea that, for me, is rapidly approaching certainty. And, my now considerable investigation has shown consistently that, for any social wellbeing to be maintained, we cannot afford another pendulum swing.

In late March, David Brooks wrote of the disasterous puddle of irrelevance that is today’s GOP. He wrote, as he always does, from his conservative values and worldview. At the same time, he said it’s a great time to be a Repubican because of the opportunity to re-craft the party’s relevance.  And he called for the populace – all of us – to engage in bold reclamation of our relatedness – our family, neighborhood and community connections.

I have to say, I’m all in with Brooks’ on this one.

At the same time, I’ve been working very closely with the leadership of complex organizations – and the danger persists for those leaders to foreclose on policies that fall too far on the side of tradition – aka some rendition of chain-of-command, or on the side of what these days is called co-construction or collaborative systems – nimble, agile, responsive.

An example – a strategic planning committee in a mid-sized university with representatives from every department. As you might imagine, this has wroght an unweildy congress of 60 academics and staff  with lots to say. No doubt, all of their input is entirely relevant, but if there is to be any movement .. well, ever .. this size advisory group is unlikely to co-construct it – rather the ‘plan’ is almost to emerge as ever from one to three suits at the top.

This outcome is an all-too-typical rendering of what Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch described in their 1972 classic, CHANGE, as first order change. That is, the more things change the more they stay the same.  The committee looks to be evidence of an operational value on collaboration, but is in the end a sham for chain-of-command – business as usual.

One group I worked with recently brought forward lists from organizational planning retreats in 2007 and 2010. Both had near identical listings of goals and next steps, yet nothing had changed. This group is charged with taking direct responsibility for physical plant functioning and the satisfaction of customers patronizing their facilities and services. Function and Relationship. They relied both on clear chain of authority and on room for improvisation – daily on the spot, and with innovations for solving the inevitable larger problems emerging in a week, month or year.

The point – Balance was the thing. And, perhaps because of their raisone detre – because of the fact they could never have survived the past 40 years of ensuring customer satisfaction and functional facilities without some version of that balance – they were immediately able to engage with making the balance visible. With the antagonism of the two ways of organizing work removed, this departmental team quickly identified organizational structures and policies – a sturdy scaffold within which the necessary improvisation of their tasks could occur.

The barrier to this in the past? The persistent and false polarity of authority and art.

In 2009, I circumnavigated the country asking everyday Americans from all walks of life to define change. I listened to people who would point with devoted certainty to the exclusive rightness of one of the two concepts – authority/artistry.  But reliably, the consistent priorities rang through every single interview.

  • We want the best for our children.
  • Within that want are clean air and water.
  • We want peace and the safety maximized in that.
  • We want meaningful work both for fulfillment, but most immediately, so we may provide for our families.

Education and health were also consistently referenced. The overlap of goals and desires was astonishing. Particularly in the climate of commercailly and politically mediated opposition that festers even more energetically today – false opposition on steriods.

I’ve speculated before about who this serves, but it’s clear the majority of people in this country are not benefitting. The challenge David Brooks posed is correct. We on the ground in communities making it day to day alongside each other are the ones who can fix this needlessly destructive (and vastly immature) trajectory. We ARE in relationship.

Here’s the other news. We’re in relationship – and any successful commander will have vast evidence to share attesting – within effective chain-of-command organizations. Any successful organization more explicitly structured around agility and nimblness – that is, functional responsiveness – also has reliable structure and lines of authority.

My observation is that, whether in formal or informal social groups, we are more adept at the balance of authority with improvisation. We do it every day, but up to now it hasn’t been necessary to stop long enough to see it. If some external set of rules legislates an imbalance – whether heavily authority-based or passively lassiaze faire – we tend to get tied in knots. In our frustration, we separate into camps, we enact opposition.

The balance is the thing. The false opposition, however, remains the unconscious and pervasive habit of most western businesses, governments and communities.

Time to pay attention a bit differently. To get humble in that wise balance between security in my way of knowing and openness to the quite practical brilliance of my seeming opponent.




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