This posting highlights the connections and synergies between Peter Block’s latest writing and Barry Oshry’s work. Those who are familiar with Barry Oshry’s thinking will find Peter Block’s most recent book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, a stimulating and challenging read.
Translating Block’s language into ‘Oshryese’, he critiques current North American society, the analysis certainly applies to the UK too, as over-individuated (isolated and self-interested) and over-differentiated (public and private institutions operating in silos in their own parallel worlds). This detachment and disconnection results in too many people left at the margins with their gifts and contributions to society unrealised, with detriment to them and to the wider community.
You could read the book through Barry Oshry’s systemic lens as describing: ‘Elites’ retreating to “the allure of gated communities, quaint and prosperous small towns” with increasing wealth, ‘Middles’ alienated and competitive running the siloed institutions of government, private and not for profit sectors, and ‘Immigrants/Bottoms’ playing their part to keep the cycle going, having fallen into a torpor of consumption, passive complaining about their lot, left cynical and powerless. Does this sound familiar as what Barry Oshry describes as the ‘Door A’, all too familiar relational dynamic that human systems fall into?
This isn’t the only possibility. As Barry reminds us Door B is always there, waiting to be created. Block’s call is to recognise the inequality that characterises our communities and reduce the levels of avoidable, unnecessary political suffering: poverty, violence, homelessness, neighbourhoods in distress; and the more subtle suffering of people’s learned dependency, absence of possibility, the powerlessness that breeds violence, and disregard for the worth of a human being. He argues that this kind of suffering occurs as a result of our disconnectedness and the imbalance of power and resources.
We can see the unfolding of a different reality in the Middle East where in the face of brutal violence the urban and rural poor have allied with graduates, professional Middles and others to challenge the Elites. The people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya are teaching us what Barry would call a lesson in how to mobilise system power: the ability to act in ways that fundamentally transform whole systems. Barry’s insights into the dynamics of power remind us that position does not determine power. The determining factors of system power are the belief one can make a difference, deep knowledge of system process (including when and how to act and mobilise others) and the courage to act. The people of the Middle East have demonstrated how this operates in practice over recent weeks.
Block argues strongly that we need to strengthen the vitality and connectedness of our communities and the degree of relatedness and belonging that exists everywhere. There is no easy positioning of Block’s work in terms of left or right in party-political terms. The book is by equal turns hopeful, as we see new possibilities and our latent power as co-creators of our world, as citizens as well as consumers, and also very challenging, as we come to see our part in the dynamics, the way we contribute to the fragmentation in the world.
Here’s a taster of some key points Block makes in the book:
Conversations matter! This includes the stories inside our heads as well as how we listen, speak and communicate meaning to others. Block’s focus on shifting the conversation mirrors a similar emphasis in Barry’s work: how do we shift the conversation from the Side Show to the Centre Ring?
Too much attention has been placed on the individual! “Naivety exists in the belief that if enough individuals awaken, and become intentional and compassionate beings, the shift in community will follow,” says Block. There is common ground with Barry’s thinking whose lifetime mission has been to educate people that it’s not just personal; the systemic conditions we and others are in not only shape our behaviour, but influence our feelings about ourselves and others.
Block generously references and explains the essence of a range of well-tried approaches, not his own, which offer practical methods in bringing about the process of collective change, of which he says too little is understood.
We need to simplify leadership and see it as a quality that exists in all human beings. From Barry Oshry’s writing we know that leadership is distributed - Tops, Middles, Bottoms and Customers each hold distinct system power - different contributions that are all needed to create a robust, high performing organisation. In a community setting, Block thinks we have overstated the role of Top Leaders, and we also hold onto redundant views of what Tops should be attending to. In common with Margaret Wheatley he describes Tops contribution as that of ‘Conveners’: shifting the context in which people gather; naming the debate through powerful questions; listening rather than advocating, defending or providing answers.
Top leaders are cause and all others are effect; this belief still seems to drive much leadership thinking and the investment primarily in our senior leaders. Block points out the implications of this assumption: “that way, leaders are foreground while citizens, followers, players and anyone else not in a leadership position is background. This love of leaders limits our capacity to create an alternative future. It proposes the only real accountability in the world is to the top. The effect of buying into this view of leadership is that it lets citizens off the hook and breeds dependency and entitlement. What is missing or dismissed are the community-building insights about how groups work, the power of relatedness, and what occurs when ordinary people get together” says Block.
“As long as we see leader as cause we will create passive, entitled citizens” Block concludes. Perhaps that’s the mindset which keeps an unproductive Top-Bottom dynamic going in organisations as well as in our communities.
John Watters, Guest Contributor