A Life-Affirming Community

In and through community lies the salvation of the world. Nothing is more important. Yet it is virtually impossible to describe community meaningfully to someone who has never experienced it-and most of us have never had an experience of true community.
M. Scott Peck, M. D.

Perhaps John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, provided as good a definition of community as anyone. Shortly before his fellow colonists set foot on land in 1630, he said: We must delight in each other, make others conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.

A story of a community from unexpected people:

The leader had suffered from depression most of his life. He continued to smoke, even as cigarettes killed him. He wrestled with his ego and his need for approval. He lived in poverty most of his life. But what a group he created. His honesty about his flaws provided the humility to lead.

Today, the organization has groups in every town and city in the United States, and in more than 140 countries of the world, with more than two million members worldwide. Each local group —more than 100,000 — functions with autonomy and has little formal structure. New groups begin and old ones die regularly. The enterprise has no budgets, buildings, or machines. Members make voluntary financial contributions. This “unorganized” body’s marketing plan attracts instead of promotes.

The organization has a powerful sense of purpose and shared values and principles to guide choices. No one gets away with self-delusion for long. Leadership emerges and shifts. All feel included and no member gets fired or laid off. Everyone values everyone else equally.

Every member accepts personal responsibility and accountability. They become humble experts at personal mastery and members do not take their success for granted. Meetings consist of myth, story, and ritual, and in every meeting members discuss the shared values, purpose and vision. All members feel significant and passion abounds. Spirit and commitment emerge from equality, creativity and shared decision-making.

We call this community Alcoholics Anonymous.

The leader was Bill Wilson: a hopeless, defeated and hospitalized alcoholic who faced imminent death. His elemental need to live rose from the deepest depths of his soul. A powerful spiritual experience reordered his psyche. After his transformation, he never drank alcohol again in his remaining 36 years. Out of his despair, he began a worldwide movement that has saved unknown millions of lives. Minds and lives changed. Aldous Huxley called Wilson “the greatest social architect of the twentieth century.” The deepest personal despair imaginable preceded his greatest possibilities and achievements.

Bill Wilson believed AA’s success had to do with the willingness of members to place the welfare of others above their own desires. AA exemplifies a humble and committed attitude of the mind and heart that, unlike most organizational change efforts, survived its leader and sustains itself.

When AA began, alcoholism was thought to be caused by character flaws or personality defects. We know that to be wrong today. Alcoholism is a disease and recovery can be defined as learning how to manage a chronic illness. This change of definition can renew AA, as all organizations must renew themselves, and expand its strengths.

Scott Peck wrote, “The most successful community in this nation-probably in the whole world-is Alcoholics Anonymous.”

How ironic that the lost souls of the world teach us how to live.

Happiness at Work

On-site exercise equipment. Paid volunteer time. A wall of baking tools you can borrow. These may sound like the perks some flush tech companies extend to their engineers.

Can leaders and organizations make people happy at work?

I learned that being in the happiness business led only to frustration and disappointment. Happiness is too elusive an idea.

I learned that it was better as a leader to create conditions where employees could come to work and feel valued, involved, and informed and have their talents and passions utilized–if they wanted to.

That way, employees felt alive in pursuit of noble goals and profits grew along with happiness.

Parents: Raise Your Children to be Artists & Entrepreneurs

From the book, Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz:

That is the great question about bureaucracies. Why are the best people so often mired in the middle, while nonentities become the leaders? Because what gets you up the ladder isn’t excellence: it is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Being smooth at cocktail parties, playing office politics, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Getting along by going along. Not sticking your neck out for the sake of your principles—not having any principles. Neither believing in the system nor thinking to question it. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that you have nothing inside you at all.

This description of life within a bureaucracy describes the dark side of life in organizations about as well as any I’ve seen. Most people accept the primary rules of organizations. They conform and comply and go along to get along. As a result, they fall far short of being the person and the employee they might be. They settle for institutionalized mediocrity rather than risk rejection in the pursuit of excellence.

A few people fight against the rules. Determined to live their values, they strive for excellence and tell the truth to power. It’s hard to be excellent when everyone around you is mediocre. It is hard to be authentic when everyone around you isn’t. It’s hard to be value-driven when everyone around you leaves their principles at the door. But such heroic modeling of what people could be in an organization can be achieved—at least for a time. And at the risk of being attacked, demonized, scapegoated, marginalized and all the other nasty things people do to others to make everyone be the same.

But why would we want to fight such unnecessary battles—not winnable in the end–if we understood life in organizations before we got too invested in an organization or profession? Why not teach our kids to work outside of organizations? And if they have to work in an organization, teach them the values and skills to be able to withstand the pressures to sell out on themselves. And teach them to always have an exit card: a place to go if things don’t work out.

It is, I think, better to abandon anti-human systems than to try to change them.



Please Disturb Us (and the Mall of America drop the charges against demonstration organizers this week)

Shortly before Christmas, organizers of a group protesting the treatment of black men scheduled a demonstration at the local monument to consumption: The Mall of America in Bloomington, MN. The Mall is private property and authorities said no to the request to demonstrate inside. Demonstrators said they would demonstrate there anyway to bring attention to their cause.

Authorities tried to use the threat of force and mass arrests to deter the demonstrators. Sandra Johnson, Bloomington city attorney, threatened charges of disorderly conduct, trespassing and even inciting a riot for orchestrating a peaceful demonstration meaningful to everyone. That made matters worse.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 people gathered in the mall’s rotunda and sang songs and chanted slogans. Twenty-five people were arrested by police in riot gear.

After the demonstration, the Bloomington city attorney—with an advanced degree in over-reaction–continued to talk tough: “You want to get at the ringleaders,” she said threatening to use social media to identify the leaders so they could be prosecuted. I thought: “Good luck with that.” She also wants to force demonstration leaders to pay for police overtime and the business losses to Mall establishments.

Johnson comes off as a prosecutor who sees life’s choices as either/or, black/white and right/wrong with non-conforming citizens as enemies to demonize and dehumanize and force into compliance instead of seeing life as it is with shades of gray, of both/and thinking and with people as human beings to respect and involve. People who use power to mindlessly force order and conformity scare me far more than demonstrators for justice do.

Sometimes power and force are necessary. Sometimes demonstrators should be arrested and charged—but not as an automatic default response without creative thoughtfulness. In this case, a more creative win/win approach might have worked better, felt better, and built community instead of fragmenting groups. But the either/or of win/lose is always easier than the both/and of win/win.

The status quo of America—how police treat black men is part of the status quo–is not sustainable and trying to return to a romanticized past, as some want to do, is suicidal. Our nation must embrace a wiser, more evolved and inclusive vision for the future if we want a vibrant country for future generations.

A significant percentage of Americans sleepwalk through life. They mindlessly rush through the day unaware of the many serious issues that harm people. While they nap, America declines. The good people who have gone to sleep need to be aggravated and awakened—even if their shopping gets disrupted for an hour or two.

We might not think the treatment of black men by police officers is our issue. Take a moment to read Charles Blow’s painful and powerful piece in the January 12, 2015 New York Times about the shooting and death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by police officers in Cleveland, Ohio recently. The callous disregard for the humanity of this child and his sister is immoral and is everyone’s responsibility.

We need a perspective on demonstrations and demonstrators that is broader and deeper, wiser and more insightful and more appreciative of those courageous and conscious people who care enough to give of themselves to fight injustice in whatever form it takes: racism, poverty, inequality, civil rights, immigration, or climate change. An assault on human dignity, in whatever form, is an attack on each of us and all should join in and speak up against such actions—not try to silent the voices of justice.

I hope the primary election process for 2015-2016 will be a season of peaceful protests by Americans young and old that awaken our awareness. I hope we understand that justice towers in importance over the demand for rigid and blind order and conformity and the suppression of free speech. I hope that authorities will learn and experiment with new ways to manage demonstrations. I hope people who have gone to sleep will be disturbed enough to wake up and vote for candidates and issues that improve life for all of us, not just a few of us

When demonstrators disturb us and offend our views, we should examine our views.