Personal mastery as moral self righteousness?

September 25, 2007

0709hidingunderarock-thumbHugh is on form with this latest cartoon drawn on the back of a business card. It reminded me of a moment of considerable frustration during a LO conference in Vienna two years ago. There was a theme in several of the presentations that focused on changing individuals on the basis that the system would change in consequence. The closing keynote from Senge was an exemplar of the approach, although I should emphasis that there were many good speeches and conversations that took place around this.. The emphasis on personal change was in the context of sustainability, awareness of global warming and the like.

This, building on ideas like personal mastery, argues that changing individuals is central to changing systems. Also that individual change is achieved through self reflection, changing the mental model. Now that is all well and good, but if you don’t change the system the the potential of individuals to achieve change is constrained. This is the essence of a complex system in which you have a double constraint: system to individual, individual to system. The co-evolutionary nature of a complex system means that individual self reflection is never enough, there also has to be active political and social engagement. That in turn enables individual change, and so on. Such change may need to be catastrophic, some political systems as so entrained as to be pervert (in the Lacanian sense of the word) systems, self maintaining their perspective on the world and constraining individual action into an ordered homogeneity

The danger of the emphasis on individual change, one could even say individual conversation is that only looks at the agents not at the system. I use the word conversion advisedly; many aspects of the bible belt manifest themselves in management gurus who allow themselves surrounded to be devotees and start to believe their own myths. It is a very short step from personal mastery to arguing that the system will not change until all individuals have been converted to the faith. This then provides an excuse for maintaining moral self righteousness while not engaging in the nitty gritty of engagement with the system. Hugh’s cartoon expresses this well.

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