“Everybody who has ever worked for a corporation knows that corporations conspire all the time. Politicians conspire all the time, pot-dealers conspire not to get caught by the narcs, the world is full of conspiracies. Conspiracy is natural primate behavior. A tribe is a conspiracy to survive. Conspiracy is just another name for coalition.” – Robert Anton Wilson
Structures are nature’s way of balancing opposing forces.
For thousands of years, pyramid hierarchies have been used to balance the forces of self-interest and group interest. Though these have been channeled through many different strategies and ideologies, the hierarchy structure remains one of humanity’s most consistent social tools.
This has great implications for our past, present and future.
Pyramids Are Natural
•Especially in survival situations, groups naturally appoint leaders, often without even asking why.
•Most people feel comfortable deferring to authority figures in their daily lives. Again, this is natural. Few ask why.
•When the group exceeds manageable size, another tier of leadership can be added above the current one. This process is simple, yet it can regress almost infinitely.
•From this, even billions of people can be managed by an incredibly small number of leaders.
From Simple Rules, Enormous Advantages Emerge
•Limiting the number of leaders streamlines decision-making, avoiding the perils of too many chiefs, not enough indians.
•Intelligent members can maximize their benefit to the group, applying themselves to leadership rather than manual labor.
•Information and decisions can quickly flow up and down a Chain of Command.
•Losses can easily be replaced by those above or below the vacant position.
•Compartmentalization – Sensitive information and instructions can be restricted to tiers of leadership on a need-to-know basis.
The Same Old Game
In the past, many problems were unsolvable without a hierarchy. There was no other practical choice. Large hierarchies (called kingdoms, and later, nations) were necessary to compete with rivals using the same strategy (this is called the Red Queen Effect).
Of course, that’s not to say this sort of rivalry has gone anywhere. Modern corporations, governments, and military forces couldn’t exist as we know them without central leadership and central planning, nor could they compete with their counterparts.
The Dysfunction of Pyramids
Pyramid hierarchies usually begin as instruments, where everyone works together for a common goal. As the force of group-interest slowly yields ground to self-interest of the leadership, it decays into an institution.
Robert Anton Wilson is one of my favorite authors. Through fiction, he entices his readers to consider the nature of real problems. Many of his characters find that their worst enemy is their own dysfunctional leadership. Let’s take a look at one of his concepts – Celine’s Laws:
Celine’s 1st Law:
The quest for national security ends up creating national insecurity. (Quis custodiet ispsos custodes? or “Who watches the watchers?”)
The source of this predicament is contained in the classic anecdote – The Sword of Damocles. No one makes it to the top (or stays there for very long) without acquiring enemies. Unfortunately, this means that to gain and hold power in a hierarchy requires paranoia, as a matter of course.
Especially in times of unrest, leaders of nations will find themselves surrounded by threats, both real and imagined. Out of fear, they create secret police organizations and tactics to root out their enemies. To function, these must have vast powers to monitor, threaten, intimidate, and punish those who might pose a threat.
Since these tools could potentially be turned against the state itself, those in power become fearful of infiltration. So they create a higher secret police to keep an eye on them.
Soon, they find themselves trapped in a never-ending cycle of creating new secret organizations to spy on the existing ones. This continues until everyone in the country is spying on one another, or the funding runs out. Usually, it’s the latter.
The Soviet Union literally imploded on itself from Celine’s First Law. Stalin and Khrushchev both frequently had to purge their own secret police to root out real or perceived traitors, or those who knew too much.
The modern U.S. government is falling prey to this, via nonstop expansion of Homeland Security and monitoring of citizens. See the comments of a retired Marine Colonel, and Iraq Veteran, in this viral video. In Maryland, residents in several counties got so sick of the surveillance (and the tickets from traffic cameras), that they took to vandalizing the equipment. The government responded by putting up cameras to watch the cameras.
Don’t worry, good citizens, everyone will be safe, once we have cameras, to watch the cameras, to watch the cameras, to watch the cameras…
Celine’s 2nd Law:
Accurate communication is possible only in a non-punishing situation. (“True communication occurs only between equals.”)
When success lies in winning the approval of one’s superiors, no one wants to be the bearer of bad news. Hierarchies reward the hiding of unpleasant truths, by dumping them off on subordinates or sweeping them under the rug. Honesty is sacrificed upon the altar of maintaining appearances. Eventually, this stops being convenient to one’s career and becomes necessary to one’s career.
When the entire organization begins doing this en masse, leaders become unknowingly blind to the truth. They surround themselves with those who tell them what they want to hear, only hearing feedback that reinforces their existing beliefs. Dissenters are quickly punished and removed, especially if they tell the truth.
Innovation, in and of itself, is a sort of rebellion against the status quo. It becomes all but impossible in an environment where the group is devoted to maintaining the existing lies, rather than trying to change things. When those who understand the problems are forced into silence, the group is never challenged to think differently.
Wilson cites J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI as a prime example. Hoover became convinced of the existence of a vast communist conspiracy, and became obsessed with rooting it out. He began making secret arrests, planting fake evidence, and using intimidation tactics on citizens to “drive the communists out.” If any of his subordinates questioned him, they quickly found themselves out of a job. Some agents who spoke out against heavy-handed tactics were labeled communists themselves and brought up on charges.
The top of the pyramid doesn’t get all the blame, though. The bottom can be just as bad…
Over a period of years, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius directed his troops on the eastern edge of the Empire to hunt down Christians, burn their villages, and crucify their leaders as examples. Acts that would not seem to match his reputation for being a wise and peaceful ruler (Meditations is required reading on leadership ethics in many top programs).
So, why would he give these orders?
Marcus was relying on distant and biased sources of information. His legion commanders and provincial governors had sent reports back to Rome, describing Christians as fanatical, violent cultists who reveled in cannibalism and incest (with their own children, no less). These reports, in turn, were based on the hearsay of villagers who hated Christians.
Even a just and wise leader can become an effective tyrant if he is basing his decisions on the wrong information.
Celine’s 3rd Law:
An honest politician is a national calamity. (“Fear those who promise great change.”)
Every oppressive regime starts with an honest politician promising change for the better. Societies are extremely difficult to change without violating someone’s rights or destroying someone’s livelihood. Starting with lofty ideals, they slowly devolve into the oppressive activities that are actually needed to bring about such change. More laws inevitably create more criminals.
Often, the lofty aspirations were never their real goal – these promises were only their means of building support.
Corrupt politicians, by contrast, merely line their own pockets with money while preserving the status quo. Wilson argues that this may be preferable.
An Environment Where The Ruthless Thrive
Rarely do large hierarchies permit the rise of honest, selfless members to the top. In fact, they’re usually all but excluded from senior positions. Why? Because it’s hard to compete with the ruthless by being nice. Throw in some paranoia (Celine’s 1st Law), and a necessity to lie (Celine’s 2nd Law), and you have a recipe for a certain type of leader to take power.
This may not necessarily be a bad thing. Sometimes, you might want a ruthless leader to take charge and make decisions that others can’t. Psychopaths often make great surgeons, for example, because they have to be able to deal with a patient, not a person on the operating table. Yet, allowing them to do anything they want, unchecked, is a recipe for disaster (See: Psychopaths – Triumph of the Ruthless).
The Struggle That Never Ends
In the real world, systemic leadership problems frequently contribute to the failure of multimillion dollar projects, scandals, accidents, injuries, and lives lost. Great-sounding ideas are often agreed to at the Congressional, Cabinet or Agency level, only to be re-scoped, downsized, and poorly redefined when passed down to those responsible for the actual work.
The instructions are often childishly unclear, written by career bureaucrats who can barely manage their own email, much less have any clue about the inner workings of complex systems. This same kind of incompetence is routinely placed in control of vast budgets and approval chains for even the most important of projects.
The results are usually a disaster, and no teaching points can emerge when the causes are swept under the rug. These will end up languishing in reports, studies, evaluations, and proposals. To protect careers, they’re almost never reported up the chain. If you’ve ever wondered how obscene amounts of money can be wasted on mediocre results, here’s your answer.
Government contracting is dominated by insider deals, favor exchanges, and revolving doors. It’s the rule, not the exception. At one time, I worked for someone who ran several companies into the ground under questionable circumstances. Wherever he went, scandal followed. Later, I found out that one of his former business partners is in jail for bribing a public official whose name you would likely recognize.
From the inside, it’s almost impossible to fix an organization that has succumbed to this. It would require firing most of the existing leadership and extensive restructure of the environment. First, those in charge would have to own up to such failure – and they rarely do.
To be fair, many who end up involved do so unwittingly, with the best of intentions. Sometimes the worst parts of it are already in place from a previous administration, and simply inherited along with everything else in the couch cushions.
Solving An Ancient Problem
Can we do anything about this?
Let’s start by examining examples of effective pyramids.
In World War 2, soldiers were drafted and formed into small, tight-knit units. NCO’s were often selected for leadership skills, and their respect from the men who served underneath them. Officers were similarly selected and trained, and battlefield commissions were given to those who emerged as leaders in combat. Use of a draft-model was one of their biggest keys to success.
The key features of this were:
•Draftees had minimal or no relationship prior to becoming a part of the team.
•Leaders were selected after an evaluation period, based on ability and respect.
•Anyone who was ineffective in their role was relieved and replaced quickly.
•Group roles were pre-defined, allowing members to be interchangeable.
•The group constantly shifted, pivoting from one task to the next.
•Honest, effective communication between superiors and subordinates (No Celine’s 2nd Law).
•Leadership was kept as impersonal as possible, keeping egos on the sideline.
•Everyone stayed focused on the objective, not on how it was achieved.
•Group were reorganized, as needed, between tasks.
In the early episodes of Band of Brothers (based on the true story of Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne), we find a group of draftees training to go to war under the command of a Capt. Sobel. Putting his career ahead of his responsibility to his men, he concerns himself with his image to his superiors, and demonstrates repeated acts of ineptitude in training. He is relieved of command just before D-Day, when the Company’s NCO’s threaten to resign as a group if he is not removed. Following this, Easy Company had better fortunes in its commanders and went on to be one of the most decorated and successful units of the war.
In many organizations, you’ll find this same contrast: hard working junior members who prioritize the job and mission, contending with leaders who are only looking out for their image. By the time the junior members have worked their way up, they have given in and adopted all of their old bosses’ bad habits. Everyone needs a paycheck, and it can be difficult to swim upstream against the current.
One can find both of these types in the modern U.S. Military. The tragic part is, many of the best junior Officers and NCO’s leave and take their talent elsewhere. When they see what many of the successful senior officers are like, they leave to avoid that fate.
Big corporations also suffer from this. In fact, the places where this isn’t the case, are becoming fewer and harder to find. For anyone that has studied organizational models or leadership theory, this is classic Process Orientation vs. Results Orientation (John T. Reed has an excellent article on the topic).
Together, We Can Overcome This
To move forward, we must address a pervasive and fundamental problem:
Our technology has evolved, but our leadership has regressed.
Western Civilization has spent most of the 20th Century collectively believing that advances in technology could always make up for failures in leadership.
Unfortunately, it seems, that’s just not true anymore.
And so we find ourselves, Here in 2013, amidst a global financial crisis, facing the same old problem, on scales large and small…
…But there is hope.
In fact, the solution has already been found and employed.