The choice not to defer


Over the Christmas break, I leapt at the opportunity to read a HUGE book (The Dawn of Everything: a new history of humanity), which I purchased over 12 months ago. David Graeber (Professor of Anthropology and London School of Economics) and David Wengrow (Professor of Comparative Archaeology at University College London) author it. 

Primarily, the book is the story of human evolution, and assumptions about early humans being primitive and childlike. Along the way, the authors share evidence of long-forgotten human societies that valued every community member’s perspective and decision, irrespective of the chief authority figures’ views and instructions. 

Indeed, some cultures or societies deliberately chose to obey and disobey authority at different times of the year, reflecting different environmental contexts (e.g. the need to follow instructions during a crucial hunt for food). This capability to step back and make a values choice to meet different situations is what we need now. But today, we seem stuck in one option that we assume has always been the case – we believe that we must obey authority – regardless. 

This evidence hit me like a brick over the head

How often do we feel we are choosing to obey authority in our society and our organisations? We also seem to believe it is a one-time decision and it’s impossible to exist with a foot in each camp, or change our minds in different instances and contexts. To have a society or organisation where, in some circumstances, the rule is to obey, and in others, the expectation can be to participate fully in assuming responsibility and making decisions with formal authorities.

The unconscious assumption is that we must abide by, defer, and subordinate our decision-making (and sense of responsibility) to those ‘in power’. As I studied adaptive leadership at Harvard, I learned that ‘all humans yearn for authority’ and that we are predisposed to want authority to tell us what to do. I am questioning this now. My belief in the inherent desirability of power over people has been unsettled for several years as I learned more about the behaviour of living systems. Living systems generate patterns of self-organisation that emerge without actions being imposed over parts of the system. And humans are definitely living systems!

Indeed, in our leadership development programs, one of the biggest hurdles is convincing participants that they can exert their influence with others. Their choice to ‘influence with’ may have consequences, and they can be smart about it (or not) to limit undesirable effects – but there is a choice to add their perspective and values into the mix.

In the current age of disruption, which will continue as climate change, ecological tipping points, artificial intelligence, geo-political differences, and mass migration continue to emerge, we need everyone to participate fully in the exercise of leadership in our communities and organisations.

Stepping out of our comfort zone of deferring to formal authority requires courage – just because it is not the norm. In most places, it is counter-cultural. We can nurture that courage by working in groups or teams. The added advantage of groups is that we can also garner more perspectives about the complex challenges (and how they interrelate). Multiple perspectives provide valuable soft or ‘warm’ data that provides a better understanding of the issue. The sharing also enables listeners to learn and alter their views in response – this is called adaptive change.