January 6th, Values, Self-Organization, and the Goals of this System

Happy January 6th- It’s the anniversary of that time a nested social system within our society attempted to violently disrupt one of its vital functions, like a cluster of cancerous cells hell-bent on growth and control. We can still see the immune system of our democracy attempting to correct, learn, and hopefully prevent future threats that will surely emerge.

Right after the events of January 6th, I recorded a YouTube video reflecting on the importance of values and clarity of shared purpose in leadership and Democracy. I was throwing my support behind the Air Force taking a stronger stance against membership in extremist groups for Airmen in light of the events at the Capital, particularly those that might pose a threat to the Democracy we aim to protect and defend. In that video I said,

I have been very interested in how values hold an important systemic function in the complexity of an organization, because our systems of simple rules and policies will always encounter situations in which they did not perfectly predict future contexts. That’s how complexity works. You can’t actually anticipate everything about the future. This is why autonomy is such an important element in handling complexity. There is no rigid system of rules and policies that won’t fail catastrophically at some point if you don’t enable values-based autonomy and empower the system to learn with changing information.

This is largely what my talk at TEDx Hickam was about, and the story I tell there- in which the rigid policies of the Exceptional Family Member Program actually harmed my family for several years instead of helping us – the solution to that problem was values-based leadership. Our Wing Commander at the time – now General Martemucci – liked to repeat this phrase to unit commanders: “Stop doing stupid stuff to Airmen”. My unit commander at the time once said to me directly that that phrase was instrumental in giving him license to escalate and intervene on behalf of my family, even though separating my family while my daughter was dying was well in line with Air Force policy. Policy is not the baseline. It’s a system intended to uphold, support, and deliver our values… and values enable leaders to uphold, exempt, or change policy in the face of new information.

We should all be quite clear that within the realm of politics, “winning at all costs” is an unacceptable posture. The systemic mechanism that prevents such behaviors could be understood as values, or perhaps alignment to the goals of the larger system (in this case our Democracy).

One of my favorite examples of what this might look like in action is when John McCain corrected a woman in a town hall who was spouting nonsense about Obama not being American during the 2008 presidential campaigns, and he said “No Ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. That’s what this campaign is all about.”

Here’s another bit from that video:

A system needs to be bounded, for example the medical profession bounds it’s role in society with values like “first do no harm”. A professional system in complexity has to exist on a foundation that informs whether the ordered systems we employ (like rules and policies) or actions we take are actually meeting the intent of our profession. In the book Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal describes transforming the Joint Special Operations Task Force from a rigid, micro-managed system to one in which values-informed autonomy drove action at the tactical level. They moved from being primarily driven by top-down instruction to more heavily driven by values interpreted and implemented within tactical context. 

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Places to intervene in a system – depiction by Corina Angheloiu

In Donella Meadows work on the “places to intervene in a system” (depicted above), number 4 is “self organization” and number 3 is “the goals of the system”. In a blog post on the topic, she said the following:

Self-Organization/Structure of the system (leverage point #4)

“When you understand the power of system self-organization, you begin to understand why biologists worship biodiversity even more than economists worship technology. The wildly varied stock of DNA, evolved and accumulated over billions of years, is the source of evolutionary potential, just as science libraries and labs and universities where scientists are trained are the source of technological potential. Allowing species to go extinct is a systems crime, just as randomly eliminating all copies of particular science journals, or particular kinds of scientists, would be.

The same could be said of human cultures, of course, which are the store of behavioral repertoires, accumulated over not billions, but hundreds of thousands of years. They are a stock out of which social evolution can arise. Unfortunately, people appreciate the precious evolutionary potential of cultures even less than they understand the preciousness of every genetic variation in the world’s ground squirrels. I guess that’s because one aspect of almost every culture is the belief in the utter superiority of that culture.

Insistence on a single culture shuts down learning. Cuts back resilience. Any system, biological, economic, or social, that gets so encrusted that it cannot self-evolve, a system that systematically scorns experimentation and wipes out the raw material of innovation, is doomed over the long term on this highly variable planet.”

Goals of the System (leverage point #3)

“Even people within systems don’t often recognize what whole-system goal they are serving. To make profits, most corporations would say, but that’s just a rule, a necessary condition to stay in the game. What is the point of the game? To grow, to increase market share, to bring the world (customers, suppliers, regulators) more and more under the control of the corporation, so that its operations becomes ever more shielded from uncertainty. John Kenneth Galbraith recognized that corporate goal — to engulf everything — long ago. It’s the goal of a cancer too. Actually it’s the goal of every living population — and only a bad one when it isn’t balanced by higher-level negative feedback loops that never let an upstart power-loop-driven entity control the world. The goal of keeping the market competitive has to trump the goal of each corporation to eliminate its competitors (and brainwash its customers and swallow its suppliers), just as in ecosystems, the goal of keeping populations in balance and evolving has to trump the goal of each population to reproduce without limit.”

So what are the goals of a Democratic system? Counterintuitively, I think it’s safe to say that Democracy does not exist to ensure the “right ideas” win. There are some hard limits we set, orthodoxies encoded into the Constitution, but the goals of Democracy, in my view, are actually largely about ensuring that evolution-enabling diversity that Meadows describes in intervention point number 4. The Democracy is the system of self-organization, and so to disrupt the system is to inhibit its capacity to respond to new information and remain resilient in a complex environment.

Our politics are simply theories of governance, masked by strategic posturing, fueled by hyperbole. Existing as we do in complexity, as much as your favorite pundits might like to tell you, these theories are not foregone conclusions. Lots of very intelligent experts disagree on theories of governance about the economy, social welfare, and basically everything else. Politics will continue to be even more difficult to parse and navigate as politicians continue to be disingenuous and intellectually dishonest in attempts to score points for their team. 

But our politics are supposed to exist on top of an underlying framework of democratic values. Democracy is founded on the idea that governance is best modulated by diversity of demographics, of thought, by inclusion and compromise. This is an operating system intended to navigate the complexity of human experience at scale, and it will never be perfect. There is this whole system in place intended to represent the people, prevent the tyranny of the masses and put checks on any office or branch that might be leaning too dangerously hard in a particular dogmatic direction. Monocultures are structurally weak. Inclusion and equity are an important part of the answer. 

James Carse, in his book Finite and Infinite Games describes evil in this way: 

“Evil is never intended as evil. Indeed, the contradiction inherent in all evil is that it originates in the desire to eliminate evil. Evil arises in the honored belief that history can be tidied up, brought to a sensible conclusion. It is evil for a nation to believe it is the last, best hope on earth. It is evil to think history is to end with a return to Zion, or with a classless society, or with the Islamicization of all living infidels. Your history does not belong to me. We live with each other in a common history.” 

Finite and Infinite Games, James P. Carse

Carse describes evil as “when an infinite game is consumed entirely within a finite game”. 

He says evil is the “restriction of all play to one or another finite game”.

That is precisely what I see in allowing politics – mere theories of governance- finite games about winning this match or this round at all costs – to supersede what ought to be our more sacred and well-bounded values – democracy, inclusion, equity, and a genuine concern for the well-being of one-another. 

Stop trying to just win at all costs. The costs of winning might be more than we can afford.

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