Greenleaf writes: How can an institution become more serving?  I see no other way than that the people who inhabit it serve better and work together toward synergy – the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts.  …I believe that the transforming movement that raises the serving quality of any institution, large or small, begins with the initiative of one individual person – no matter how large the institution or how substantial the movement…

 How to achieve community under the shelter of bigness may be the essence of this challenge because so much of caring depends upon knowing and interacting with persons in the intimacy of propinquity [Note: ‘Propinquity’ = a concept that captures three communal aspects: proximity, kinship, and similarity].  …achieving many small-scale communities, under the shelter that is best given by bigness, may be the secret of synergy in large institutions. 

In his writings Greenleaf focuses on a number of recurring metaphors – one of them is ‘community.’  The importance of metaphor is often under-appreciated, if appreciated at all (by the by, gentle reader, too often the importance of all organizational metaphors and ‘life’ are often under-appreciated – if appreciated at all).  Consider: The metaphors we use determine the paths we choose!

If an organization, for example, has integrated a mechanical metaphor (that is, the organization is a machine and the people are parts in the machine) it will function differently from an organization that has integrated a ‘banking metaphor’ (which is the most common organizational metaphor today – people are assets, resources, commodities, and liabilities), and it will function differently from an organization that has integrated a ‘family metaphor’ (these are only three of the more popular organizational metaphors existing in full bloom today – speaking of ‘full bloom’ how about a garden metaphor).

‘Community’ is another powerful organizational metaphor – ‘Communities’ define and relate to its members in ways that are often radically different from the mechanical, banking, and family metaphors.   Not only does the community metaphor promote interdependence more than dependence and independence, it promotes and is committed to the development, growth, and health of its members (community members are fully human beings that have innate potential and bring a diversity of gifts, talents, abilities and capacities to the community; the community seeks to discern ways that each member can contribute – think: make a difference).

The dominant organizational metaphor is discerned and named by paying attention to the questions asked, to the words chosen to describe activities/people and the by deep tacit assumptions that have been integrated into the organization’s  ‘identity’ (that is, they have become ‘second nature’ to the organization).

By their nature, communities are small (remember they require: proximity, kinship, and similarity).  Thus, large institutions, if they are going to embrace and integrate a ‘community’ metaphor must achieve this via many ‘small communities’ that will be directly and indirectly connected together (this is one definition of ‘systems’ and ‘systems thinking’).

‘Community building’ is a conscious, disciplined process and does not occur simply because good people come together and seek to do good work.  To complicate matters even more, each sub-culture within an organization will have integrated its own metaphor – this is one reason why sub-cultures made up of ‘good people’ will end up in conflict with one another (a sub-culture that has integrated a ‘team’ metaphor will conflict with a sub-culture that has integrated a ‘banking metaphor’ or a ‘family metaphor’ or a ‘mechanical metaphor’ or a ‘community metaphor’ or a ‘garden metaphor’ (the possibilities are near endless).

Given certain ‘change’ initiatives it will be crucial for an organization to identify and name its primary metaphor and to name the metaphors that the sub-cultures have integrated.  Given this understanding then it becomes important to understand which strengths of each metaphor will support a shift-change-transformation so that the organization will become ‘more serving’ and which will inhibit (or directly block) this process.


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