History and Philosophy

Hierarchies 101

There is nothing about a hierarchy that assumes “the people at the top” are any more intelligent or more highly trained than the people at the bottom. They have a different function, one which requires a specific knowledge base and skill set, not necessarily more of either intelligence or training.

A case in point is a university. The president of a college has, one hopes, a certain kind of knowledge and training. The teaching staff has another kind. Professors are often much better educated in terms of breadth of knowledge, even in certifications and recognitions, than university presidents. Department chairs are not necessarily, and probably not even normally, the most educated or the most intelligent members of their department. (I’m assuming a general definition of “intelligent” as highly knowledgeable with the ability to transfer that knowledge to a wide range of topics. Intelligence is more than memory and diligent processing of research in the field, in other words.)

The brilliance of university presidents is in knowing how to hire and promote people who are smarter than themselves and in knowing when to consult them. That isn’t to say that university presidents do that but for the sake of argument, I’m assuming competence. A president is a person who can conceptualize issues broadly and integrate information from an operational point of view, not necessarily from an academic point of view—and is interested in doing it. Probably 80% of the population has no interest in this at all and only a fraction of  the other 20% are good at it.

Levels of abstraction characterize the levels in a hierarchy. The higher levels think in longer time frames and larger budget categories. An even clearer distinction is that the higher the level the more it is concerned with the meta data of an organization. A university is about education, but what presidents do from day to day has very little to do with educating. Presidents need to understand educational issues but what they are responsible for is facilitating education: obtaining and overseeing the allocation of resources, representing the institution at ceremonial events, guarding public reputation of the institution, etc.

A university president has probably not seen the inside of a classroom in decades. And students only at commencement and while walking across campus. Or in the newspaper when there is trouble.

The value of the sociocratic structure as conceptualized by Gerard Endenburg is that it recognizes this and provides a way for presidents not only to be informed by administrators, professors, and students alike, but to be informed in a way that requires them to listen. The president has specific roles and responsibilities that are governed, directly or indirectly, by the rest of the organization. The president is led by the organization, not the other way around.

The problem of those who advocate the ideas of sociocracy as they establish organizations internationally is to determine how those national organizations will lead the movement, which for decades has been confined to the Sociocratisch Centrum in The Netherlands. Ironically, the principles and methods of sociocracy are being tested as the struggle for the control of ideas is waged. Who controls ideas? Who can teach them?  Can there be an authority apart from the Centrum?