Sunday, June 27, 2010

Leadership and Self-Organization

In my previous blogs, I've been arguing that our society relies too much on social organization based on leadership and followership. I also suggested that: we have too many leaders, we unjustly praise and blame them for the successes and failures of others, we over-pay them, and bestow way too much media exposure upon them. So what's the alternative? My answer "self-organized social systems."I'll be the first to admit that this sounds fishy. Let me try to clean out the fish tank a bit.

First of all, I am not advocating anarchy. We humans are social animals, and therefore, we will always "organize" ourselves in order to achieve various ends by via various means. Hence, human organizations are irrevocably teleological (goal-directed). Libertarians argue that long-term survival of any organization is contingent upon functionality: the ability to achieve its goal. Moreover, I also fully acknowledge that our natural instincts propel us to play "following the leader." My argument is simply that this leader-follower organizational structure doesn't work anymore. What's the alternative? Self-organization. So what would this alternative system look like?

Let's start off with a few empirical observations concerning the nature of ALL human organizations. 1.) All organizations emerge out of complex human social interactions. 2.) Historically, they are organized on the basis of leadership and followership. 3.) All organizations emerge and adapt to changing environments, and eventually suffer extinction. 4.)Over the course of an organization's finite lifetime, leaders influence followers and followers influence leaders. 5.) Over an organization's lifetime, sub-organizations emerge that seek change either organizational ends, means, or both. 6.) Organizations are also influenced by other external organizations within their environment. Some are cooperative some are competitive in the quest for members and/or resources. In other words, ALL ORGANIZATIONS ARE COMPLEX ADAPTIVE SYSTEMS. Human organizations differ from other natural systems insofar as they can be either self-organized (from the bottom up) or leader-organized (from the top down).

Now what are self-organized systems? Self-organized organizations lack a master-control mechanism. The best example of a self-organized system is an ecological system. Because no one controls what's going on at the lower levels, ecosystems can easily adapt to environmental change via variation and selection. For human organizations, adaptation is contingent upon the ability of members to freely enter or exit that organization; that is join, maintain membership, or quit. All organizations cooperate with and/or compete with one other for members and resources based on information provided to members and non-members relating to ends and means. Rational human beings do not join an organization, if they don't know (Trust) what it does or how it does it.

Organizations that cannot maintain membership and/or resources must either revise their organizational ends or means in order to survive. Mother Nature "creatively destroys" organizational dysfunctionality, if-and-only-if, members are rational and are free to enter or exit. So why are there so many dysfunctional organizations? Dysfunctional organizations can extend their lives by short-circuiting the process of "creative destruction." There are three manifulative strategies: threats, enticements, and disinformation.

Many, if not most human organizations are leader-organized from the top down where followers are simply manipulated by leaders. How? Human beings are naturally attracted to pleasure and repulsed by pain. We prefer pleasure and fear pain. Thus, the most common strategy for propping up dysfunctional organizations is to either threaten (pain) members with coercive force or offer an enticement (pleasure). Organizational survival based on threats is obviously contingent upon the ability of organizational leaders to carry out those threats. Another, related strategy is to use physical barriers such as walls or fences that control entry or exit, which must deal with tunnels, aircraft, and ships.

Dysfunctional organizations can also survive by offering enticements, which attract and retain membership transactionally; that is, by giving (or taking away) something members value. The Robin Hood Strategy involves taking away the property of some members and giving it to other members. The problem here is how to take from the "haves" without them exiting the organization, and how to decide how much to give to the "have nots." One effective strategy is to disquise both the identity of the beneficiaries and the contributers.

But the most common strategy for maintaining dysfunctional organizations is to control the flow of "information" within the system and outside the system. Informational control involves manipulation of the beliefs of members (and or non-members) by deliberately obscuring or disguising organizational means or ends: propaganda or ideology. Organizations also tend to disguise information relating to actual benefactors and beneficiaries; usually by disguising costs and/or benefits of being a member. For example, you might be a member of group that you believe is committed to achieving praiseworthy goals (save the whales) via praiseworthy means (exposing the impending extinction of the species), but later discover that this organization uses its resources to support terrorist activity in Afghanistan. Of course, (in the absence of coercive force) if and when this information is exposed, most whale lovers head for the exits and other potential whale lovers look for alternatives. Unfortunately, whale lovers that support terrorism might choose to remain and new terrorists might also join.

Now, here is the crux of my argument. There are two different kinds of organizations: private organizations and public organizations. Public organizations survive or suffer extinction via the use of legalized threats, enticements, and disinformation. Private organizations survive or suffer extinction without the benefit use of LEGALITY. This is not to say that dysfunctional private organizations are by definition non-transactional or less ideological than public organizations. Many are coercive (think gangs). But their use of coercion and manipulation is limited by competition with other organizations. In other words, it is much more difficult for private, voluntary organizations to survive because we naturally prefer voluntary over-non-voluntary organizations. Two caveats: 1.) We don't always exit organizations that threaten or seize the property of others, therefore, organizations are often threatened by external organizations. 2.)Sometimes more powerful organizations intervene on behalf of members of other organizations.

Nevertheless, over the long run, private, non-coercive, voluntary organizations tend to be more adaptive. Mother Nature punishes organizations that employ coercive force or tell lies. So again, why hasn't this behavior been weeded out by creative destruction? Non-voluntary organizations survive by controlling the flow of energy and information within and between organizations. The cultural evolution of weaponry and information technology tend to undermine creative destruction of dysfunctionality. Survival, therefore, becomes contingent upon weaponry and media access. Thus competition is shifted from the ability to attract and keep voluntary members to the ability to effectively employ coercive force and tell lies. This accounts for the rise and durability of nation states as the dominating political entity in the world today. Generally speaking, there are very few "failed nation states." All nation states are more or less coercive, anthough their methods vary significantly. All employ propaganda. Coercive organizations that can raise and maintain an army and/or control information can survive.

So what does all this say about leadership and followership? Modern organizations that rely primarily on the ability of leaders to attract and maintain followers via threats, lies,or transactions, are doomed to fail; especially in environments where members can avoid threats, detect lies, or resist payoffs. Libertarians argue that we must guard ourselves against coercive and deceptive organizations. Anarcho-capitalist libertarians argue that this requires the dismantling of the nation state. Once this is done, they argue, creative destruction will purge the world of aggression and theft. I'm not quite that idealistic. Minarchists, like myself, argue that we need a degree of monopolized coercive force (government) to protect voluntary organizations from coercive force and deception. Although anarcho-capitalists and minarchists disagree over the MEANS of protecting self-organization, we at least agree that the process must be protected. We also agree that "good organizations" embrace moral rules against aggression, theft, and lies; and that, over the long-run, modern organizations that are not open to the forces of "creative destruction" find themselves on "The Road to Serfdom."

Throughout most of human history, human organizations have been held together by fear and lies. Although that worked well enough for most of human history, it will not work any more, unless we want to revert back to Pleistocene life styles.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Libertarian Leadership Theory and the Flow of Information, Misinformation, and Disinformation

So far, I've been arguing that we have a biological and cultural bias that over-values "leaders," and therefore, we tend to grant them too much authority over our lives and over-pay them relative to what they actually contribute to human organizations. If I'm right, the obvious question is: "How did this tradition become entrenched in Western culture?" My answer is that it has a lot to do with the nature of information and how it flows (or does not flow) within and between organizations.

All evolutionary systems exchange energy and/or information. The precise nature of the relationship between energy (or matter) and information is puzzling. DNA is matter that conveys information. And all information is processed by our brains. Does that mean that all information is "really" matter? Does materialism win out. Let's not talk about that right now. Let's just assume that it makes sense to talk about information apart from its material substrate. One thing we do know is that the concept of information is front-loaded; that is, we use the word "information" only in contexts where we believe that a statement is true. Hence, we have other words that we employ in different contexts. For example, misinformation is information we once believed to be true, but subsequently turned out to be false under evolutionary pressure. Call it the process of "creative destruction." Evolutionary epistemologists argue that this process of falsification is endless and that we get closer to the "Truth" over the long run, but never really arrive at absolute truth. Species never reach their final evolutionary state either. Why? Because physical and cultural systems constantly change under pressure from internal sub-systems and external systems. So far, we've looked at the concepts of information and misinformation. Although there are a few epistemic puzzles, they seem pretty straightforward. The real problem for cultural evolution is "disinformation" (sometimes called propaganda or ideology). Disinformation emerges out of the exercise of power within hierarchical social structures. Plato called it the "Noble Lie," where the Philosopher King deliberately tell lies to followers (populace) in order to provide a "greater good." Plato was no dummy, he also recognized that leaders often lie out of self interest.

So here's the rub. When followers allow leaders to control the the flow of information, what is to prevent those leaders from telling "ignoble lies, to benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else? Plato argued that leaders must be virtuous (good, wise, temperate, and courageous etc.) and that the capacity for virtue is mostly inherited, and can be undermined by dysfunctional social structure. Hence, for Plato "good leaders" are more likely to arise in "republics," and less likely to emerge in military governments, oligarchies, democracies, or under tyranny. Today, we believe that we can teach our future leaders these virtues (at least to a greater extent). My thesis is that when leaders have the power to control the flow of information in order to advance the public good, three problems arise: they wrongfully mistake information for misinformation. No problem there, we all make mistakes. Even President Obama! A second problem is that they make a mistake in identifying the public good, or mistake private good for public good. That's more serious. The most serious problem arises when leaders take either information or misinformation and transform it into disinformation in pursuit of either self-interest or the interests of their friends and relatives. In the private sector we call it "crony capitalism." It's a serious disease that infects all complex modern societies.

My hypothesis is that most human organizations are knee deep in disinformation promulgated by self-interested leaders. Let's call it the "Enron Effect," where leaders skillfully manipulate the flow of information within their organizations and between organizations. As a result, leaders can attract and maintain a critical mass of followers by skillfully controlling the flow of information. The more complex an organizations internal institutions and the more complex the legal structure, the easier it is for leaders to manufacture Truth. Even when we catch them in the act of lying, we rarely hold them responsible. Why? Because of our biologically and culturally based reverence for leaders. In the modern world we really have to be more critical followers and abandon bad leaders; or better yet, let's just refuse to engage in most followership.

My libertarian theory of leadership suggests that leaders that operate within hierarchical social structures take advantage of the increasing complexity of human organizational life by generating disinformation that protects themselves from competition, increases their power, and ultimately the size of their wallets. In other words, the complexity of modern life has undermined the liklihood of virtuous leadership and that before we can advance as a modern society, we have to abandon our unbridled faith in heroic leaders and move more toward self-organized social structures that allow for the free flow of information within and between organizations. Of course, that means I'll have to explain what I mean by a leaderless, self-organized social system. I'll try to do that in my next blog.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Libertarian Theory of Followership

Because of our biological and cultural programming, researchers continue to focus on male-dominated "heroic leadership" with little regard for the facts and values associated with followership. So first of all, let's clear the air. There are no leaders without followers and there are no followers with out leaders. Therefore, our obsession with freestanding leaders and our relative disregard for followership is itself is worthy of explanation and commentary! Second, let's also admit that if there are better and worse leaders (in terms of both effectiveness and morality), there are also better and worse followers. And third, let's admit that (for better or worse), over time, leaders influence followers and followers influence leaders; that is, leaders and followers adapt to their organizational environments. Fourth, organizations, leaders, and followers are all influenced (for better or worse) by other organizations in their environment. And fifth, sometimes organizations, leaders, and followers cooperate in pursuit of their respective goals and sometimes they compete. If this sounds complicated, you're right!

Now a libertarian theory of followership is a prescriptive or moral theory based on aforementioned facts. So what are the necessary conditions for ethical followership? Obviously, libertarianism requires that followership be voluntary. I like John Rawls' term "voluntary association." Hence all organizations must include freedom of exit. Why? Because sometimes powerful leaders threaten to use lethal force to prevent followers from exiting non-voluntary organizations. And of course, sometimes followers employ lethal force to remove leaders. (Assassination of leaders by followers is embarassingly common and probably unique to humans and chimpanzees.) This also suggests that sometimes followers care more about organizations than they care about their leaders, and sometimes (perhaps more often) they care more about their leaders than their organizations. In so far as libertarians take the non-aggression axiom seriously, the use of lethal aggression to remove leaders can be employed only in self-defense. Otherwise, we are morally required to exit dysfunctional and/or immoral organizations. Although the "heroic theory" of leadership and followership would label this strategy as cowardly, or effeminate, it works; economists call it "creative destruction." Remember, there are no leaders without followers. There are, however, self-organized, leaderless organizations. More on that in a subsequent blog.

Sometimes followers follow leaders based on false or misleading information. My next blog entry will attempt to sketch in how the flow of information within and between organzations influences the survival and extinction of organizations and why libertarian followers must be wary of misinformation and/or disinformation diseminated by leaders.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Leadership, Culture, and the Market

A few of my libertarian friends have been "beating me up" on Facebook for some of what I said about leadership in my last blog entry. I'm just beginng to formulate what I'd call a "Libertarian Theory of Leadership." Let me see what I can salvage. First of all, I've been teaching a graduate course on Ethical Issues in Organizations for many years and I'm working on a bibliographical essay on Ethical Leadership this summer. It's interesting stuff! Most of the recent research penned by social scientists either seeks to identify the individual traits that constitute leaders; or understand the social dynamics between leaders, followers, and other stakeholders. Philosophers, tend to look at the conceptual dynamic: What exactly do we mean when we label someone as "leader," "follower," a "good leader" or "good follower?" For most of us leadership resembles pornography: "We know it when we see it." For philosophers that not enough.

We do know that we humans have a universal propensity to socially organize ourselves based on leadership and followership. We first experience it on the playground in grade school, where certain kids "take the lead." As I stated in my last essay, that's natural. We still exhibit that behavior because it facilitated the passage of human genes across generations. My take on it? Social organization based on hierarchical structures with powerful leaders perched at the top, "worked" during the Pleistocene era, but not in complex modern society. It "worked" in in small hunter-gather societies because one "leader" could know enough to facilitate group survival. Hence, the genes for leadership and deferential followership facilitated human survival. Unfortunately, we still have those genes. The genes for hierarchical leadership tend to follow the Y chromosome, that is some males have the natural impulse to "take charge" and most everyone else has the natural impulse to follow that leader. Followers also tend to willingly bestow authority upon leaders; that is we allow them to make individual and collective decisions for us. Followers also tend to "value" leaders more than followers, and therefore we willingly shower them with social privileges that most followers do not enjoy: more sex, more food, more resources etc. Again, I think this is all natural. But it's no longer good. My basic argument is that libertarians must be wary of our natural inclination to coronate leaders and shower them with special privileges. That's how we succumb to totalitarian leadership.

Now back to my contention that today we have too many leaders and that our culture tends to over-pay leaders. Let's see if I can salvage this idea. Let's say that like everything else, leaders are subject to market forces and therefore they are subject to market fluctuations. Call it the leadership market. Philosophers are experiencing the lower end of that business cycle right now! I think that leaders are now about to face that same downturn. Because of the widespead availability of information, we now are coming to the realization that our leaders are not Godlike (omniscient and omnipotent), that they are fallible, and that we pay them more than they are worth. In short, a market correction is now underway. (Ask President Obama!) As a libertarian, I think this is a good thing. Throughout most of human history leaders have been generally given a free pass. They've been able to control information, competition, and even control entry and exit from leadership positions. They've often used government to protect their lofty positions. Interestingly, when we discover leadership chicanery, we say: "Oh, he's not a real leader!" What's going on there?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Libertarian Theory of Organizational Leadership

I've been thinking about what a libertarian theory of organizational leadership might look like. Libertarians often rant and rave about leadership, but rarely present anything that resembles a general theory rooted in libertarian principles. Here's my modest start.

First of all, humans, like many of species of living things, live in organized groups. Human beings and chimpanzees seem to be especially prone to the formation of "organizations" controlled by dominance hierarchies with coalitions of males perched at the top, with one "alpha male" serving as leader. Organizations, therefore are comprised of complex relationships between "leaders" and "followers." Hence there are no leaders without followers, and no followers without leaders. All human organizations are created to serve some purpose. Thus all leaders lead toward the realization of some future end or goal. Although human beings create and dissolve organizations all the time, most scholars seem to focus on certain kinds of organizations: political organizations, military organizations, and business organizations. The central question of leadership studies is whether there are general laws of nature that apply to all organizations, regardless of their purpose; or whether the laws of nature are relative to specific kinds of organizations that pursue specific goals. In short, are there laws of leadership and followership that apply equally to all organizations? Are the leaders of corporations, terrorist networks, baseball teams, and rock bands (in fact) all subject to the same a set of universal laws? My current view is that there are very general laws of nature that explain, predict and control the behavior of all human organizations. But that will require an argument.

My observation is that all organizations involve relationships between leaders and followers. Over time, as human relationships became more complex under pressure from rapid cultural evolution, most notably in Western nations. Again my understanding of social anthropological findings is that early human social organizations were dominance hierarchies led by an alpha males. But leadership was based on demonstrated competence. No one Alpha made all the decisions. As long as humans lived in small groups this "worked" very well. However, as the sizes of human organizations increased, the efficacy of these dominance hierarchies diminished. Although many large human organizations are still organized based on rigid dominance hierarchies, these organizations often survive but rarely flourish. There are still many nations led by military dictatorships headed by leaders that are viewed in otherworldly terms; that is, omnipotent and omniscient. Many corporations are also still led by iron-fisted CEOs. However, my theory of organizational leadership is that large scale organizations require a different kind of leadership. Actually, Machiavelli noted the difference between a principality (single leader) and a republic (multiple leaders). Large scale republics are more likely to floursh than large scale principalities. Admittedly, many large scale principalities do "survive" for a long time, but they cannot flourish. Why because large scale social organization require the free flow of information and resources. Now, several hundred thousand years ago, leaders could know everything the group needed to survive.Today, it is impossible for the President of the U.S. to know everything about health care, banking, or oil drilling. The President of Toyota can't know how to engineer an automoble from scratch, and college presidents can know how to teach every course on the curriculum. Successful modern leaders cannot be omnipotent and omniscient, therefore, its naive to expect them to be. Obama can't know how to fix the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. I's nonsense to expect him to "take responsibility for it." All that does is support our misguided that our leaders must be God-like, which explain why we no longer "trust" our leaders. Effective leaders of modern large scale organizations facilitate the flow of information and resources within their organizations; and forge useful coalitions with other external organizations. That does not require omnipotence or omniscience and it certainly does not warrant multi-million dollar executive pay. Any libertarian theory of leadership will argue that we need less powerful leaders and a lot fewer of them. Finally, if leaders are responsible for maintaining the flow of information and resources, then they are responsible removing forces that interrupt that flow. Therefore, although I do not hold Obama responsible for the oil leak, I will hold him responsible for maintaining inflexible governmental bureaucracies that do not fulfill their official purpose. Good leaders fire irresponsible subordinates and dissolve dysfunctional governmental agencies. Let's start with FEMA,EPA,and he U.S. Coast Guard.