Follow the Leader


John Wright


For some reason all the recent political campaigning stimulated me to reflect on the nature of our individual social contracts with all people we follow as our leaders and all people we engage as associates and friends. In particular, it is the extent of responsibility for results incurred by the follower or the associate that I wish to examine. This article could be ended in the first paragraph with a throwaway statement to the effect that we have little or no control in choosing leaders so our individual responsibility for what they do is little or none. I believe that position to be the height of irresponsibility for any individual so I immediately discount that position to zero value in any meaningful consideration of responsibility. We do decide exactly what we will do to support or to hurt our leaders. For most of us, even our work associates are chosen for us so we tend to think we exert little control and thus have little responsibility for group results. That is erroneous thinking.

Let me provide an easy example. As a teenager you take a ride with a group of friends in a car. While out, one of your friends, the unofficial leader of the group, robs a convenience store while you sit unaware in the car. Are you an accomplice to the crime, and subject to prosecution under the law? It would seem not as you had no knowledge of what your friend was about to do or did, at least up to the point where he returned to the car. Assume that he keeps his actions secret from you because he is devious and selfish. If he is later identified and arrested your name will be mentioned and you will find yourself having to defend your innocence. This is the old familiar "guilt by association" issue. That you would choose to call someone friend and go out socializing with that person causes that personís actions to reflect on you. That means your friendís values in action are assumed to be yours as well. Even if you are not convicted as an accomplice, you have been tagged as a person of inferior judgment.

Are you truly innocent? Of the specific event of that robbery, yes. Of placing yourself and your loved ones at risk, probably not. The "track record" of your friend in earlier events that you knew about, directly or indirectly, sets the tone for your guilt or innocence by association. If you take a ride with someone who you know has done bad things in the past then you have assumed a level of joint responsibility for whatever may happen in future events in that personís company. You may influence future group results, however, by keeping your so-called friend on a tight leash.

Thus, it all comes down to knowledge based on experience, in which personal friends and business associates share time with us directly, so we have personal knowledge about some past, present and likely future behaviors. We are thus responsible. The manner in which we engage each of those individuals is our choice, including total candor regarding our likes, dislikes and beliefs, as well as our willingness or unwillingness to engage in any particular activity in any particular way. It is your right to judge according to your beliefs and values and thus it is your fair expectation to be judged by others according to their beliefs and values. All processes and customs that impede candid communication, like political correctness, are flat out wrong. One can be and should be both civil and forthright in all normal life social transactions, yet adaptive to special circumstances that pose immediate physical danger. IQ test: While staring at the wrong end of a gun I will/will not give the holder a thorough tongue-lashing?

When it comes to leaders who we may never meet and whose history is presented to us only as highly positive, the issue of personal responsibility for the leaderís actions becomes less clear. This is, however, the "sticky wicket" that is the issue for this article. My contention is that we are indeed individually responsible for larger events in business and society as a whole. How might that be so?

In the work environment as well as in the political environment we do get to see the results. Business units experience various types of successes and failures that are obvious to anyone who pays attention within that environment. Assignment of responsibility for those results is rather straightforward. Nations experience various types of successes and failures that are also obvious, provided one really does pay attention to enough sources of information to distinguish truth from fiction. Even with major control of most media there are numerous avenues available to individuals to get alternative opinions and higher quality information. It is a matter of caring enough to do the work to understand what things went well or poorly and why and who is responsible.

One might counter that leadership has privileges that are not the right of the followers to judge. What foolishness! You depend on your employer for your financial security, and that alone is a sufficient basis for you to judge and to engage others within your company for mutual future security. After all, employment is typically a long-term business contract in which both sides have an inherent right to expect and demand high performance. Neither side has the right to put at serious risk the present or future income of the other. Both sides have a responsibility to monitor each otherís performance and to shine light on areas that need to be improved for mutual future success.

So called "controlling ownership" of a company is not typically in the hands of the management in large corporations. It is a transparent dodge for any member of management to hide behind the concept that they own the enterprise by proxy and are thus entitled to make all decisions without being subject to employee judgment. Indeed, the employees and the management typically have much more at stake regarding future wellbeing than the stockholders. All are essential contributors and all have a right to step into the process when something is going wrong.

Realize that most of us are not contractors. When we join an enterprise it is for the long-term. Employers want us to be maximally effective and always there to be used as needed. In turn, we want our employers to be maximally effective so that present and future incomes are assured. It is from the employment security base that we make critical decisions about our lives, like buying a home, saving for our childrenís future college expenses and deciding how much income to divert to future retirement and health needs. We must therefore evaluate and judge and act accordingly throughout a career. We are as responsible as our management for the health of the enterprise, so it is our responsibility when we allow inferior management decisions to go unquestioned and result in financial decline.

If you think about it, there is no right to storm the boardroom, nor should there be. The workable action area has to do with the very nature of hierarchy. In particular, there is need for a review process that precedes major final decisions that can impact employee security and that involves all people in the enterprise who have the requisite knowledge base to contribute. That we seldom hear about that approach is a condemnation of certain management practices. To hide or mask decisions that have a negative effect on employee security is a dishonest business practice. To exclude the input from knowledgeable individuals in other major decision areas is the height of arrogance, and is singularly the reason for so many failures in well-intentioned initiatives. High in position does not necessarily mean high in required knowledge. It is situational. Failure to ask the right questions directed to knowledgeable employees is a sure sign of management weakness and a harbinger of coming failure. The challenge to the knowledgeable employee is in finding support to change the nature of hierarchy in regard to shared evaluation of major pending decisions.

Lest you think I am whining about the old theory of "management by consensus," I am not. One does not successfully operate a business as a democracy for the skill and knowledge levels necessary to making specific optimal decisions are not broad-based. Conversely, the availability of highly knowledgeable people within the enterprise who are not management or who are management in other disciplines screams with opportunity for improved strategic and operational decisions. The right of decision remains where it was in the hierarchy, but the information basis from which the decision is made is vastly improved. We do, however, have to get past the stovepipe nature of hierarchical domains before the recommended path will work or even be considered in the larger business environment.

What about the larger world of political leadership? We ordinary folks do have the right to vote, occasionally, which is formally absent in the world of business. Alas, that so-called right can be our undoing as it makes us personally and collectively responsible for the actions of our leaders. It gives them the mechanism to order us to do all manner of things we would not otherwise do. In a democracy majority rules, at least in theory, and in our case it is called but not necessarily is a "representative" democracy. It is a little like the term "due process" in our legal system, which translated accurately means only that there is a formal procedure for prosecution, not necessarily a promise of fairness or justice.

The problem is that results from actions of political leaders reflect on the entire population. Having recourse to correct problems only through the election process allows far too much opportunity for leaders to go astray and to compromise our wellbeing. If that isnít obvious from the past three years of President Bushís actions, that indeed can be measured in terms of results, financially and in lives lost in military conquest, loss of freedoms from search and seizure (and even habeas corpus) and job losses, then one is blind. It is of course the process as well as the person that is faulty.

The "process" part is the subject of this article and the "person" part a clear example of why individuals cannot ignore their right and responsibility to engage government between elections. Multiple well-attended demonstrations to avoid war with Iraq were ignored. The mechanism of allowing public gatherings, which is intrinsic to our principles of government, is virtually worthless in action, for most citizens are too uninvolved and too dull to even know when to act, let alone know what actions should be taken by government leaders. This is an "Achilles heel" intrinsic in our democracy, aided and abetted by government techniques used to keep the public functionally ignorant.

I have at other times, in Destiny and in other articles, discussed methods for changing how we govern, e.g. enhanced use of the proposition system, but at the federal level. Consensus management is appropriate to government on a topic by topic basis. Hence, the proposition systems in use in various states. Another example is my championing the relocation of candidate identification, promotion and selection away from the two-party machine operation, down to the local level in places like our churches. Yes, other places could be used Ö but where are they? The idea is that national or state conventions following state or local primaries precludes a necessary first step to get the input from non-political individuals at the community level. This takes the form of an aggregation of "church" level issue identifications for platforms and candidate promotions, designed to extract and use valuable people who are not part of an established larger political machine. These people may, by populist causes, evolve us out of the two party system and its many abuses.

These governing process ideas are the counterpart to enhanced employee involvement in our businesses. Both call on untapped talents that are structurally excluded today. Both situations can be changed and should be changed. Yet, as we all know, nothing happens without a life-changing perception of our rights and responsibilities. I wonder what level of disaster or series of lousy circumstances is appropriate to support that change in our thinking?

Follow the Leader? What are you, a sheep?