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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Both personal and organizational boundaries are clearly drawn in the modern world. While family and work are closely related in the premodern world, modern organizations tend to discourage the mixing of family life and work. While family connections form the base for many premodern organizations, modern societies have made it illegal for anyone in an organization to hire a relative (laws of “nepotism”). Paternalistic concerns are considered inappropriate in modern organizations. Modern leaders are not allowed to regulate the lives of their workers when not on the job, although they have much greater control over the lives of their employees when they are at work.

When it comes to mission and purpose in the modern world, there is much less clarity and consistency. In general, mission statements have been created primarily for public image and marketing or (in the case of private institutions) the mission is directed simply to the “bottom line.” In contrast with their visible and clear boundaries, the mission statements of most modern organizations do not provide much clarity or guidance for those who work in or evaluate these institutions. While the premodern world is built on land and reputation (with a strong parallel emphasis on service and community), the modern world is built on a different form of capital: money. In a modern world that values democratic ideals and fosters the expectation (or myth) of upward social mobility, new wealth and a more transient bourgeoisie are dominant.

In essence, the modern world has produced a shift from direct sources of personal meaning in life (through one’s work, family and church) to indirect sources (wealth and consumption). The premodern man or woman takes pride in the cultivation of crops or production of crafts, and in the raising of a family and provision of food and shelter to members of the family. By contrast, modern workers are often alienated from the products of their work and from ownership for the means of production. Alienation from the direct sources of meaning in our work is joined with the alienation that comes from the loss of personal voice and influence, and with the loss of interdependency among people who once worked together in premodern communities.

This dual form of alienation often produces a profound (and at times isolating) individualism. We have to look inward for guidance and a sense of purpose rather than looking, as we do in a premodern world, to an external authority or community. Modern organizations emphasize individual rights and look to individuals with specialized and technical expertise to solve complex organizational problems. Most of the modern perspectives on motivation to work similarly focus on personal rewards and individual achievements. We no longer derive meaning in the modern world from shared societal beliefs or from institutions that sustain and interpret these beliefs (such as organizations, extended families or governments). Meaning comes instead from the individualistic pursuit of wealth and the acquisition of goods that convey our personal identities and offer a (usually unfulfilled) promise of happiness and self esteem.

The Postmodern World: Fragmentation and Complexity

As we enter the postmodern era, it appears that integrative services of the modern era—even if they are extensive—often are not sufficient to hold the organization together. Even with greater attention being given to organizational culture and to creating a strong feeling of solidarity, contemporary organizations are experiencing pervasive fragmentation, chaos and inconsistency. One part of the organization does not know or care what the other parts are doing. Growing frustration is founded on frequent and counterproductive reorganizations, conglomerations of differing structures that always seem to be “in planning,” the failure of many divisions to coordinate their efforts with other divisions, the lack of clearly established organization-wide priorities, and a general sense of foreboding or panic (postmodern edginess).

Increasingly, two major questions must be asked by leaders with regard to these postmodern conditions. First, what is the right size for this particular organization or this particular unit of the organization? We have learned in our postmodern world that we cannot solve the problem of integration simply by devoting more resources to integrative processes as we grow larger. The integration of functions in large organizations may no longer be possible or if it is possible, it requires much too large a proportion of the total resources of the organization for this organization to survive. Administrative costs tend to rise not fall with expansion in the size and complexity of organizations. Effective postmodern leaders speak about appropriate size rather than indiscriminate growth.

The second major question that postmodern leaders must ask concerns the nature of the integration that does occur. Traditionally, integration has been equated with control. We keep organizations from flying apart by ensuring that all operations of the organization are tightly controlled. In the modern world, this means that organizations will be structured hierarchically, with each person receiving orders from someone situated immediately above them on this hierarchy. This emphasis on line-based authority and an accompanying emphasis on uniformity of practice supposedly keep the organization fully integrated. An alternative way to think of integration emphasizes influence instead of control. Rather than using the formal hierarchy of the organization, successful postmodern leaders use more informal and powerful channels of communication and leadership-by-example. Rather than looking to the hierarchy to gain control, they look to the network and the web to exert influence. Key people and groups who are located at nodal points in the network can be highly influential and often play a much greater role in bringing about integration than do those at the top of the organization.

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