Powerful perspective from an unlikely source…

It is no secret that I am in the throes of studying for my qualifying exams – one of the many milestones for my PhD program – and in an effort to prepare I have been reading, reading, reading.

As a part of my preparation I have been re-reading a book that I read a year ago, Ronald A. Heifetz’s Leadership Without Easy Answers, but this time with the events unfolding in Ferguson, AND across our nation, playing in the background of my mind, I am reading this book with fresh eyes. Several passages struck me so deeply that I immediately felt the need to share.

In chapter 3 of his book, Heifetz discusses The Roots of Authority:

“…the deal to confer power in exchange for a service is made so automatically that the phrase ‘social habit’ may fit better than ‘social contract.’ A contract is a deliberate arrangement between consenting parties. Yet so many of us who grow up within one society know of no other set of possible arrangements. We have not ‘agreed’ in the sense of deliberately choosing among a set of alternative options.”

“The concept of social contract [is]…the cornerstone of democracy. …democracy requires that average citizens become aware that they are indeed the principals and that those upon whom they confer power are their agents. They have also to bear the risks, the costs, and the fruits of shared responsibility and civic participation.”

The human “…capacity to internalize the teachings of authorities enables the formation of culture and, consequently, large and flexible societies and organization. …our cultural norms fulfill in many ways the social functions of authority.”

Although culture is important, “robust culture” cannot replace the need for systems of authority.

One of the passages that gave me pause was found near the end of chapter 3. I was in awe of the eloquence with which Heifetz was able to examine the dysfunction that is nurtured in the presence of the distrust of authority:

“…the perpetuation of the culture requires a trustworthy network of authorities so that [individuals can]…internalize a fairly coherent set of norms. In the absence of such a network…”there is dysfunction. Such as “…disconnecting…from the larger community…and its promise [which can breed and internalize]…a deep distrust of societal authority and the norms it represents.”

A year ago when I read this book I didn’t interpret Heifetz’s words in the way that I do today.  His examination of leadership, and its societal relationship, is relevant to many areas of dysfunction that we see evidenced in our communities – public education, race relations, the widening disparities of wealth and achievement, and the list could go on and on. Perhaps taking the time to consider Heifetz perspectives, and work through methods of application, would be a useful exercise before we jump to fix, reform or transform something that we believe to be broken or in need of repair.

I want to close this post by sharing one last passage from Heifetz book:

“Many of us have been so conditioned to defer to authority that we do not realize the extent to which we are the source of an authority’s power. When we realize our collective power…we can retract the power we have given.”

Just food for thought.

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