May 2017


An understanding of human systems can be applied in a number of ways.  The better economists observe them.  Social science analyzes and tests them.  Organization change and development practitioners develop them.  Marketers influence them.  Social-serving leaders lean more toward developing them.  Self-serving leaders at least seek to manage them and at most to strategically manipulate them.

I heard Dr. Edgar Schein remark in his closing statement of a lecture series I attended at Benedictine University that it remains in our field difficult to support an organization to overcome its dominant culture.  Though speaking of organizations, as someone who studies human systems, I have long realized that what applies at one level of a human system applies at all levels, from individuals to communities to organizations to society at large.

To achieve their goals and results, self-serving leaders strategically manipulate the human systems they lead.  In many to most cases, it is simply the that these personalities are innately strategic.  Strategy is not always applied wittingly but from human need to obtain a personal vision for themselves, often with disregard for others, though not always.  The ones who are conscious of their skill are often able to manipulate even other manipulators.  This is a style of leadership enamored in US culture and beyond, portrayed in television and movies.

Whether manipulating or developing, similar avenues are applied: communication, policy and procedure, process and learning.  The vision, and whether it is self or social serving, depends on the nature of the leader and whether applied with integrity or not.  A self-serving leader may easily say one thing while doing quite the opposite so long as it serves the final result s/he is after.  Where a social serving leader typically seeks to develop individual capacity and awareness, a self-serving leader may withhold learning and information in order to diminish the same.  Followers may be left feeling disenfranchised, but the resultant lack of context will allow the self-serving leader to deflect being seen as the cause.  While social serving leaders will seek to create an environment of self-determination, self-serving leaders seem to prefer to create an environment to be managed toward their cause.  And, there may be followers to the cause, at least as communicated; and if those followers are deflected from observing the leaders’ actions, the reality of any resulting detriment to them may be lost on them.

Integrity is key, though not easily established.  We must learn to not only listen to our leaders, but to witness their actions, as well as seek broader context than simply rely on the interchange or relationship between one’s self and the leader.  In that case, emotional detachment is required.  Any of this is more easily said than done, and if our system is about withholding our development, we may not even be aware of it.

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I have long observed, since my formative years living overseas in fact, that a driving force in US society is its uncanny ability to sell and market, with an emphasis on marketing.  I see it as a fundamental driver of our consumer based economy.  The purpose of marketing is to get us to buy, and the industry has long figured out how to manipulate us into doing just that.  Problem is, this capacity has also long since permeated well beyond advertising into, among many areas it might not belong, politics.

Marketing could be seen as notorious for tapping into our belief systems and our emotions in order to do its job.  The problem I see is that those, and there are many, unaware of this, become and/or remain malleable.  Couple this with the fact that we, as a society, are generally inept at managing emotion because it is just so uncomfortable to address, especially in professional life, and we have a foundation for emotionally hijacking great swathes of the US population.  Despite a discomfort with emotion, or perhaps because of it, we love to be emotionally involved.  We crave passion for what we do, due, I would argue, to being trained to buy or pay attention to what others are selling.

There is a reason we deem people in an emotional state irrational.  Emotion, despite our discomfort and its greater value than we give it, can and does cloud our judgment.  We get caught up in the romance of feeling passion for a political candidate.  It’s a version of falling in love, really, to feel the chemistry of connection.  But if we check ourselves, we realize that we eventually have to live with the reality, the rational version of that relationship.  Now, if the candidate, much as a lover, has both charisma and stability, that really is the preferable option.  But love, and hatred for that matter, are blind and emotional attachment or disenchantment can have us overlook, or even avoid looking, at a whole candidate.

In the recent national election, the emotional connection and disenchantment were highly evident.  Those who fell in love with Bernie Sanders were devastated at the loss of their emotionally connecting candidate, and left with over-rational Hillary Clinton or emotionally volatile Donald Trump so driven to the rebound option of a third choice.  There were many more factors at play, of course, like identification by way of similar beliefs, but, as mentioned, tapping into our belief systems is another marketing ploy used on us on a regular basis, so ditto the effect.

There are those who will remain enamored with Trump and continue to overlook his instability.  And there are those who are not enraptured by him who simply didn’t or couldn’t align with Hillary’s version of stability.  But just as in relationships of all kinds, we must come to terms with the fact that not one of us is perfect or ever a perfect fit, and so it goes with political candidates.  In light of the options, it may behoove us to forego our passion and disenchantment for simply making the best rational decision.