Home Featured Leading into the Future II: A Tale of Three Societies

Leading into the Future II: A Tale of Three Societies

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The Premodern World: Simplicity and Tradition

We may be entering a postmodern era, but our sight is as much backward as it is forward. Everything seems to be in flux in our organizations. We look back with a distorted and often nostalgic perspective on a world that we assume to be simpler and conducive to strong leaders who could decisively solve straightforward problems. It was a world in which employees found gratification in the work they performed and found community in the people with whom they affiliated. Typically, our organizations were founded in communities that had an identity or at least homogeneity regarding values, culture or social-economic status. Even in urban settings, our organizations were often founded to serve a distinct community group or need.

Is our yearning for a simpler place and time nothing more than an attempt to escape from the vagaries of contemporary life? Given the pressures under which we live in our postmodern world, it is quite understandable that we might wish for a simpler place and time. Yet, there is also realism in our search for the premodern world. First, the premodern still exists in our society. As a world community, we are only a moment away from the premodern. Most societies were predominantly premodern less than one hundred years ago. The premodern world is still prevalent in many American communities. A thin veneer of modernism covers the fundamental and deeply rooted premodernism of virtually all societies. Organizations are still concerned with shared values and play a central role in the creation or maintenance of a vital and caring community. This is a central message in postmodernism: a successful postmodern organization will inevitably incorporate diverse elements from many times and places.

The premodern world is also of great relevance because it holds at least partial answers for our emerging postmodern world. The premodern world can help us set the agenda for our organizations, with regard to re-emerging values. It also provides us with important insights about the human enterprise. Virtually all transformations in social systems begin with the bashing of the previous, dominant era. “We are no longer going to use the old horse and buggy” “Let me show you the modern way in which we build houses [or grow peas or serve members of our church].” Many of the contemporary advocates for new paradigm thinking similarly begin with an analysis of modern world failure. This is quite understandable, given the desire to present something that is new and different. However, in the long run it is foolish to leave behind the rich traditions of the past and knowledge gained from years of practical experience. Organizations situated in an emerging postmodern world are likely to be successful, in part, if they borrow from both the premodern and modern worlds, while also inventing new forms and formulating new perspectives that are neither premodern nor modern.

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