The Paradox of Agency

A multi-description exploration of the Paradox of Agency in Complexity.

MJ 611/ 2021 


Leadership Within the Paradox of Agency

By Nora Bateson

In this era of multiple crises and global threats, I am increasingly uneasy with the call for leadership. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rachel Carson, and other iconic figures are held up as examples of true leaders: they offered charisma, vision and strength enough to pioneer new eras of thought. The lack of such characters now, we are told, suggests a vacuum in our capacity to generate the old-school kind of hope for the future that these courageous individuals embodied. So where are the leaders of today? This is the question plaintively asked of today’s activists, scientists, politicians, and keepers of the moral fabric.

I would like a moment to call bullshit. This thinking about leadership is not useful. There is no such thing as an isolated individual—we are all interdependent. Period. Our evolution is only in our mutual contribution and learning. Mutual. Leadership is an evolving process and, as such, our understanding of what leadership is must evolve in accordance. In the past the world understood leadership as the great deeds of heroes; now we are in another phase of global transition that requires an understanding of leadership based on our understanding of interdependency.

Is there a part of any of us that we can point to and truly say, “that is me—untouched or influenced by any of my history, my culture, education, family, religion, social life…”? Unlikely. Perhaps, instead, leadership is a product of the context, combined with other influences that seem to culminate in crowning an individual with leadership duties. When we look through the lens of interdependency, it is impossible to separate individuals from their contexts of influence and experience. This blurs the ‘hero’s story.’ Leadership, then, can better be attributed to the town or village that nourished a person than to that person’s individual qualities.

In ecological terms we can attribute the health and vitality of the whale to the ocean not only to the whale, and we can attribute the strength of the lion to the jungle (or savannah) not only to the lion. The environment in which the alchemy of collective need is met with a corresponding alchemical combination of possibility produces new paths to follow. In the combination of community and individual, hardship and support, isolation and belonging, past and future, vision and discipline, there can arise a perfect storm that produces what we have, in the past, called leaders.

The very word ‘leadership’ has become cringe worthy. It reeks of colonialism and lopsided history-book listings of individuals successful in taking, making, and claiming. Celebrating the potency of the individual is an insatiable ghost haunting the endless array of courses and manuals for developing leaders. Our fatal flaw may be the idea that an individual or institution can single-handedly penetrate new frontiers of possibility. This is an obsolete but undead dream of heroes and rescuers pioneering innovations. Lightning bolts of imagination and strength, these so-called leaders are presented as utterly independent of their histories; as though they had fallen from the sky. The haunting seeps into what we call ambition, fueled by our wanting to be important and successful. There are scissors somewhere that slice the ambitious from their comprehension of the mutuality we all inevitably live within. The mutuality is where the imagination is brewing, where the strength is made, where the integrity of the context lies. Can we extract a stand-out entity from that mutuality and call it a break-away? Isn’t the break-away a product of the mutuality? How can ‘leaders’ exist without all the relationships that have culminated and fermented to make them? Should we not point to those mutualities as heroic?

So I don’t want a leader. I am sick of heroes. I look back at how we got where we are now and I wonder what kind of systemic imbalances have been created by the thinking that longs to canonize leaders. What is a leader in a complex system anyway? What is the ecology of leadership?

I think there isn’t one. When we look to nature for models, we find that there is not an ecology that would accommodate the existing model of leadership. Think of trees in a forest. How did the ‘leaders’ get so tall? Were they extra courageous or charismatic? The ecological response would observe that the other organisms mutually contributed to that growth. The ‘king of the jungle’ is a human nonsense that understands nothing of the lion’s relationships in the ever-changing natural order of the many species that extend into the pride of lions. The alpha dog is seen as the ‘leader of the pack,’ presuming that the pack ends with the grouping of dogs, which it does not. The human construct of leadership is projected onto the pack by us who are in the habit of identifying that pattern. Dogs have no such framing. Pack members are in communication and mutual learning with each other and the wider surroundings, responding to information that is funneled through the ‘alpha’ but generated through the pack. This makes the ‘relationship of dominance’ perceived, contextual, and not fixed. What we see as deference is a collaborative, communicational relationship that can be disrupted if the ‘leader’ or the ‘followers’ reorganize the communication.

In fact, I think our notions of leadership are toxic to the ecology of communication and collaboration in a social system. How can there be real communication when there is deference to a leader? This imbalance creates a hold-back of contribution and interaction. Look now at the fascination with celebrity that has infected the globe. The imbalance in the possibility for communication when one individual is placed above others in this way effectively destroys the possibility of true cooperation and mutual learning.

Mutual learning is only possible when all participants are willing to be wrong… willing to learn, to explore new ideas, to go off the map, out of the known, and together grope in the shadowy corners of new ideas, new plans, new territories. That cannot happen if one person is the know-it-all. Even if that person has perfect ‘leadership skills’—they still disrupt the ecology with individualism. ‘Leadership’ often creates competition, ambition, greed and, on the flip side, fosters deference, hopelessness, apathy, and blame.

Being part of a system requires knowing that whatever happens is an expression of the patterns that entire system is involved in—that means, there is no fault, and everyone is responsible. No blame. Everyone must contribute to the shift. The health and the toxicity of the system ecologically manifests in keeping with the trends of the system. Someone with a diet of sugar, alcohol, pesticides and other harmful substances may develop pimples, rashes, tumors, or other illnesses. The manifestations of the system’s toxicity are intrinsic responses—indicators of challenges to the system. In the same way the toxicity of our institutional infrastructure is an indicator of the challenges in our cultural zeitgeist. The tumor or pimple is formed from within the body as a whole, in the same way that the healing of a wound, or embryonic development of a baby is also formed from within the system as a whole, including the father. These forms are not stand-alone.

This means big oil is not to blame, big banks are not to blame, big pharma is not to blame. Big weapons, and bad guys—not to blame. We are all included in a pattern in which those systems are interlocked into our survival and destruction. Whether we like it or not. As uncomfortable as it is, the lens of contextualizing leadership reveals that the responsibility we would like to hold our institutions to, does not in fact lie inside the institutions, but between them. The linkings between institutions, where no governing body lies, is the zone where integrity or corruption actually rests. But there is nothing there; no board of directors, no policy, no by- laws; it is a nowhereland where there is neither authority nor jurisdiction. The injustices that occur are not stand-alone either, they are the tumors, the pimples, and the deadly contextual toxicity in our culture.

One example is the interlocked institutional bond that forms the spectrum of troubles around depression and anxiety. It is all too easy to get bogged down in the current cultural quest for success and to feel unable to measure up. The anxiety and depression of this feeling of failing is often treated with pharmaceuticals that have side-effects, including addiction, further depression, or conditions that need additional medication. The pain of this common story leaks into marriages, family life, professional productivity, bleeding into how the affected family interacts with the education system, and even the legal system. Where is the responsibility? Pointing a finger anywhere in particular is only a small peek of inquiry into the situation. Should big pharma not sell those drugs? Should society not be so competitive? Should government take better care of citizens?

An institution is made of people, each with their own biographies, and it exists within community, culture and, ultimately, the natural world. Margaret Mead noted the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Indeed, the responsibility for the world the child grows to understand lies in the collective impressions that the village provides. In the same way, the behavior of institutions lies in the contextual expectations and valuations of each organization’s relationships within the larger community, as well as at the level of each employee. This is a tricky set of boundaries to draw, influenced at meta levels by lurking habits of thinking that tend to individuate. The responsibility is in the village, and the way the village interacts with its institutions. In the same way, the institutions interact with each other to form the linking zone where the blending of culture, economy and education happens.

In our dissatisfaction with the behavior of our institutional or corporate organizations, we, the village, with our wish for ‘change,’ may feel impotent. Politics, business, law, education, medicine, and media are all substantiating each other. Politics needs business to thrive, education is the link to employment and scientific importance, medicine and law try to support both the political and personal codes of health and justice in respect to business and governmental policy. We cannot after all vote on the board or rewrite corporate policy from the sidelines. We cannot impose transformation on the institutions. But we can change our relationship to them. In doing so we alter relationships between institutions. Collectively, growing systemic transformation is always relational; the ecology is what changes, not the individual bits.

We may learn more about leadership if we study it as an entrustment of context, and not as a twinkle bestowed upon a few select individuals from the heavens above. To trust the context requires a second order shift

in purposing our agendas. Instead of being activists for this or that cause, we need to tend to the contextual capacity for those changes we would like to see. For example, making laws that limit the production and distribution of dangerous drugs does not stop the drugs from being made and sold. Those who see gain in supplying them find a way, either legally or illegally. But if there is a shift in shared tastes and values within the community—a general trend that does not include those drugs—the suppliers will seek other opportunities. So the question is not how to stop the dealers, though this clearly must be addressed to some extent. The more effective inquiry is around how to assist the community overall in valuing its own well-being. The context, be it a society or family or ecology of any sort, will adjust in the ways in which its given circumstances accommodate. The illusion of the leader’s capacity to innovate is created by the success of the one who chimes the bells that were in a sense ready to ring anyway.

We might inquire more broadly (while at the same time trying to change policy)—what kind of civilization we want to live in. What kind of family is this? What sort of person am I? Am I the sort that is numb to the suffering of others? That question is not about which street beggars I may or may not give a coin to, it is about what my children see me do, all day every day and how they make sense of the world they are growing up in. The millions of people who are forced now for economic, ecological, and political reasons to start new lives in new lands, are dangerous not because they will deplete the social services of the ‘developed’ countries they enter, but because in the act of refusal by the developed countries the integrity of ‘civilization’ is being condemned. What kind of civilization allows millions of people to die at its doorstep? The damage this does to the contextual fabric of Europe and North America is likely to reveal itself in a horrifying loss of decency, empathy, and integrity.

The notion of the individual entity having agency is confused by a paradox. The confusion lies with the idea of individuation. The entity (organism, person, or organization) is bound to its unique perspective or epistemology, and in that sense is identifiable as a separate source of responsibility. But, there is no aspect of that entity that is uninfluenced, uninformed, or unbound to the larger contextual interactions. On closer examination we begin to see that agency is diffused into the larger contextual processes that are shared by the entire community. Agency is a paradoxical product of mutual learning within and between people, nature, and culture.

Leadership does not reside in a person but in an arena that can be occupied by offerings of specific wisdom to the needs of the community. So leadership is produced collectively in the community, not the individual. The individual’s responsibility is to be ready and willing to show up, serve, and then, most importantly, stand back. Leadership for this era is not a role or a set of traits; it’s a zone of interrelational process. Step in, step out.

The illusion of the prevailing way of thinking is that there is someone to blame—or to praise—as a leader, hero, villain, tyrant, saint or Satan. And that thinking—that is how we got where we are today. Am I writing this book? Or is it the swirling contexts of my culture and family history, my digesting breakfast, my friends, and colleagues that are collectively responsible for this purple prose? I cannot rule out contextual input or the particular sensitivities of my epistemology. Both are relevant. But are they mine? But are they me?

In the ecology of the interdependence of our world, that individualistic idea is wildly out of sync. With blame, as with praise, the causation becomes singular and linear… The problems we face now are neither singular nor linear. So the solutions won’t be either.

The danger of the world’s fascination with celebrity is that it distracts from our ability to perceive larger interactions in context. In a world in which individualism is a viable illusion, collaborative discovery is unseen.

What part of a jungle is the most important? Water? Soil? Insects? Plants? Animals? Geography? Rivers? Air? The jungle in fact is only alive in the living, growing relationships between the processes…

What part of the body is the most important part? Heart? Lungs? Blood? Muscles? Emotions? Dreams? Intellect?

Maybe there was a time when these notions of leadership were useful – but not any more. This global whirl of interrelations and interlocked histories and futures is not waiting for leaders… it’s waiting for the courage to trust each other and to step carefully into the ‘intentional community’ of the 7 billion people we share the commune of life with. This is our tribe. Just the 7 billion of us… and the animals, plants and micro- organisms. Those who came before, and those who will follow. That’s all.

So, am I saying that there is no room for teachers? That there is no room for the expert? No. But a good teacher, and a real expert, knows that they are in a process of learning themselves. They are not leaders. They are not making the seeds grow… They are fertilizer, tending to the soil.
By definition, leadership is needed when something has to be done that has never been done before. Meeting unknown circumstances requires rapid and spontaneous learning. In the case of today’s leadership needs, that learning is mutual.

Excerpt from Nora Bateson’s book Small Arcs of Larger Circles, Triarchy Press, UK. 2016. Copyright Nora Bateson. Reproduced with permission of the author.

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