Design Thinking and Servant Leadership — Part II — Understanding the Legalistic Transition

conor snowhole

Conor at 13, firing it up on the Lower Salmon, Snowhole Rapids, Idaho

In the last post, we ended with a short scenario on why servant leadership couldn’t thrive in an Authoritarian v-Meme organization.  The obvious reasons that jump out are the lack of trust, especially in assigning credit, as well as the lack of connection that a more evolved empathetic sense would create.

Yet the problems with developing leadership in Authoritarian organizations go deeper than that.  One of the biggest problems is a lack of stable social structure for the entire company — because this is subject to rearrangement by the person at the respective top of the system.  This is intrinsically linked to the main problem with Authoritarianism — that the person at the top is in control of the veracity of the knowledge in play.  The short version is that the Authority gets to decide who’s telling the truth.  And if there are no constraints on that person’s power, they can move the deck chairs (with employees in them!) around as they wish to reinforce whatever version of truth suits them at that moment.  The ranking of employees themselves is directly at the mercy  of the whim/impulsive nature of the Authoritarian figure themselves.

And it’s also likely a real Authoritarian is going to become aware of a servant leader arising in their midst, through the appearance of empathetic subgrouping of employees around that individual.  Without any other modifiers, they are going to perceive that person only as a threat to their power and control.  Which will mean the aspiring servant leader will have to be whacked.

We can start to see the beginnings of potential for servant leaders in true Legalistic  v-Meme hierarchies, in that now there are at least some rules that constrain authority.  And while there is not necessarily a level playing field — hierarchies are, well, hierarchies — there are at least some rules about who can talk to who, and some process that has to be followed.  In the case of the prior blog post, it’s more unlikely that Big Boss would scheme with John, the lower level employee, against the servant leader.  And if there were an established culture and examples of how credit was to be delivered, a show of humility by the Servant Leader in the middle would have less chance of being misinterpreted.

Additionally, rules and process for product excellence would likely also be in place.  John, at the bottom, upon completing a deliverable and having it certified — a Legalistic v-Meme construct — would have some external validation of due diligence on their part.  Certification of success is an important part of a trust environment.  Equally important is the lack of responsibility for statistical failure.  John could complete a task, get it certified, and have the servant leader in the middle commend him, without worrying about whether a trap was being set.

While Legalistic systems won’t in and of themselves create atmospheres for servant leadership — in my opinion, they’re more neutral than anything else — they do create the scaffolding for support of servant leadership as the company evolves.  And creating scaffolding is necessary for access to those higher v-Memes where Performance and Community can take off.  At the Legalistic v-Meme level, you can start the process of establishing global standards that take away from the authority of the Authoritarian — and creates a system that people can move, connect and develop, at some level independent of one person’s idiosyncrasies.

That’s not to say you couldn’t have a person in an Authoritarian organization put in their time until they got to the top of the organization — and then totally emerge as a servant leader, and rearrange everything beneath them.  But now we are once again in the realm of the Exceptional Individual.  Hardly a predictable way to assure long term continuity and performance.

Takeaways:  The Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme provides important scaffolding for the emergence of servant leadership.  But it is typically not sufficient in and of itself.

Further Reading:  Reflecting on the last two posts, it should come as no surprise that servant leadership maps well to Plato’s idea of a philosopher king — an individual who was not only a just and fair Authoritarian, but one capable of creating Legalistic/Absolutistic systemic thought that would constrain their own actions.  For those that have been following this blog for a while, it should also come as no surprise that being a philosopher king was probably the best that someone in ancient Greece could aspire to, as the society Plato wrote about was just past the Chthonic Transition into stable Authoritarianism with emerging principles of Legalism.  Old Plato stretched as much as he could — the idea of higher-level synergistic networks was simply unavailable.

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