The main difficulty in imagining a world without rank-based leaders might be expressed in something called fundamental attribution error, or FAE ”attributing a false cause to an effect. [3] For instance, in the "Great Man" (or "Terrible Man") theory of history, events occur as they do because of the temperament or character of the individuals involved. An example of this is the simplistic belief that people do good things because they're good and bad things because they're bad. This is, observation has taught me, a fundamental attribution error.

Character is a bundle of habits and potential behaviors that depend on timing, circumstances, or context to be triggered. Research has shown that context can make good people do terrible things and terrible people do extraordinarily good things. How we behave is frequently a function of context rather than character. This is demonstrated by research by Stanley Milgram of Yale University in the 1960s showing that average, decent people would give an electric shock to a stranger for giving wrong answers in the context of a faked scientific experiment. [4]

Another example is the 1973 study by Princeton psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson. As described by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point (2000), Darley and Batson based their study on the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan. They chose to work with a group of seminarians, people who had chosen a career of helping others. They gave each seminarian the assignment to prepare a short talk on a given Biblical theme, and he or she was to walk over to a nearby building to deliver the talk. Some were even given as a topic the story of the Good Samaritan. On the way, each student would run into a person slumped in an alley with his head down, coughing and groaning. The intent was to see who would stop and help. Of the variables in this study, the only one that seemed to matter was that some students were told they were late and needed to hurry and others were told they had a few minutes and could walk over more leisurely. Of those told they were late, only 10 percent stopped to help. Of those told they had more time, 65 percent stopped . The logical implication of this study is clear: a person's character or " conviction of heart" is far less important to actual behavior than the context for that behavior. This works in the other direction as well ”bad people do good things, too.

If context, not character, is the determining factor, then a key question is, How do we organize things and create the organizational environment for exercising our better habits? Does rank-based leadership create the right context for a full flowering of human potential?

Rank in History

We tend to think that leaders are necessary for effectively guiding human relationships in organizations, but do we ever ask why we believe this? Why do we anoint a relatively small number of individuals as leaders and give them more resources and better assignments, while we lock the vast majority into positions that offer little hope of fully engaging their potential talents? If we look at the history of human social organizations, we see that we have been attracted to command-and-control, rank-based forms of social organization. Following Joseph Tainter's analysis of these organization types in The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), we can identify three basic types of human organization. The first two are categorized as "simple"; the third as "complex." All three of these social forms have been established on rank-based relationships:

  • "Big Man" society ”right to rule determined by virtue of personality; control maintained through threat of physical force; individual's status determined by proximity to the Big Man

  • Chieftain society ”right to rule determined by position rather than personality; control maintained through threat of physical force, not from individuals, but from the organization; individual's status determined by position

  • Hierarchical society ”occurring over the last six thousand years ; multilevel rank-based structure with the highest level controlling power; control maintained through threat of loss of position

In each of these forms, a person's standing and position in society are based on rank. Status and access to resources depend on proximity to the Big Man, the tribal chief, or the person at the top of the hierarchy. To keep relative standing and position safe, individuals must keep the rank-based leaders above them happy. It seems that rank-based organizations, in some sense, have been set as our default position since the days of the Big Man, when societies typically numbered no more than one thousand. This historical context has produced a rank-based logic that requires a division of leaders and followers. It is sufficient to say that rank-based organizations represent our past but not the promise of our future. A fourth social form, the network society, is emerging.

[3] Malcolm Gladwell discusses FAE in The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (New York: Little Brown & Co., 2000), 160.

[4] See Milgram's own analysis of this basic human phenomenon in Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (New York: HarperCollins, 1983).

The Myth of Leadership. Creating Leaderless Organizations
The Myth of Leadership: Creating Leaderless Organizations
ISBN: 0891061991
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2004
Pages: 98

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