Often, I find in my life that widely disparate aspects show the same patterns and tendencies that draw my attention to matters that are unusual and distinctive. For example, yesterday I read a book that dealt with the military history of the Pacific Northwest, speaking in particular about the tension within tribes between an existing body of leadership that appears to have involved inheritance with a body of leadership based on military prowess demonstrated through war, allowing those from undistinguished backgrounds to rise based on proven talent and ability and a desire to serve the well-being of their tribes. This is far from a problem that was dealt with by the tribes of the Pacific Northwest alone. For example, the Chinese dealt most dramatically with this system in their own ways, with a high degree of authority, often of a dynastic feature, within its local aristocracy combined by the opportunity for poor but bright citizens to rise into positions of honor and respect through passing grueling examinations based on the ancient canonical texts, some of which, like their military texts, have been of great personal interest . The similar use of a balanced approach towards leadership that combines continuity and change suggests a common human problem to deal with.
The problem may be summarized thusly. Human institutions exist in a world full of danger and peril and threat, but cultural elites generally desire, understandably enough, to preserve their own elite status and the survival of the institutions that they lead and serve. This is no mere self-serving rhetoric, for the well-being of ordinary people, who may have no particular talents or ambitions for leadership, itself also depends on a certain stability of authority and of basic safety and security in life. The collapse of even corrupt and wicked authorities often leads to intense suffering for ordinary people, meaning that the avoidance of anarchy and chaos is to be considered as a basic and fundamental obligation in our dealings with others, even if we are critical of corruption in elites and among authorities. Our desire for freedom is not an absence of authority, but rather a purifying of that authority from moral and ethical corruption so that it may better serve others. Yet the very presence of problems often leads to an unwillingness on the part of leaders to admit fault in order to avoid losing face.
As an aside, none of us are immune to this problem of wishing to save face. To give a humorous personal example, yesterday afternoon I was invited to the conference room at a particular time to receive an explanation of changes among the business of others. When I went to that time and place, I found that instead of what I had expected, one of the executives I often work with was working on plans for reporting with a couple of people from one of our sister companies in the same corporate family. Unwilling to simply turn around and leave, I managed to engage them in conversation for some length of time until there was a natural break, finding an interest in larger corporate strategy as well as issues of sales and financial reporting and the lack of such reports that are available to my associates, before returning to my regular duties without having lost a great deal of face or having myself embarrassed in being where I was not expected and not being where I wanted to go. I managed to make a couple of new acquaintances, gain an understanding of the context of the business activities of my associates, and save face in a potentially awkward situation, no mean achievement.
Leaders and institutions face tension between a desire for continuity and a recognition of the need for change. Leaders want to have their rule upheld, and that is easy enough to understand. People who achieve some level of elite status similarly like to pass that status on after them, for part of the reason we strive to succeed is not only to serve our own interests in life but to leave a legacy behind us to descendants as well as within the historical memory of our institutions. This is also easy enough to understand. Yet there exist pressures from within and without for change. An institution with a particular form and way of operating may find it necessary to change with increasing education and activity among its ordinary people, who demand an outlet for their conspicuous God-given talents, despite their own lack of elite backgrounds. At the same time, unfriendly and unstable external circumstances often require a flexibility of thought and approach that is not often present among those who have internalized a conventional way of operating that has proven to be very successful for them.
How is this tension to be overcome? Balanced approaches appear to work well. There are usually sufficient opportunities that can be found to serve both the goals of continuity while reflecting the need for adaptation to changing internal and external circumstances in a way that provide a wide basis of respect and honor and that also provide a way for everyone involved to save face. Providing opportunities on a generational level allows for an organizational culture to endure by passing it on to future generations, encouraging long-term loyalty to institutions and the understanding that this loyalty will be richly rewarded. At the same time, rewarding opportunities to particularly bright and talented and service-minded people of more obscure backgrounds helps those institutions better handle both internal and external challenges. The availability of progress and growth and increased honor and status within organizations helps to defuse internal tensions by allowing ambition to be focused on external service, to the benefit of everyone. Not only does this tend to reduce internal tensions, but the focused and intentional development of talented people from obscure backgrounds also allows for the development of a capacity for flexible thought and approach that allow institutions to better cope with external pressures and difficulties.
Given the obviously beneficial nature of this solution to the tension between a desire to preserve the stability of institutions while simultaneously recognizing internal and external pressures for change, what are the barriers to this harmonious and beneficial outcome? For one, there is often an insufficient attention to the labor-intense process of developing seasoned people capable of serving with honor and integrity as elites, and a tendency to view ambitious commoners as a threat to established order rather than as a dynamic aspect that can serve to benefit that order if properly encouraged and harnessed. There is a wise lesson in the contrast between the oak and the willow that serves as a warning to institutions, in that the oak’s stubborn refusal to bend with the end can often lead it to toppling over in the face of a gale, while the willow’s ability to bend with the wind allows it to endure because its trunk is not so rigid that it cannot flex while preserving its connection to its roots in the earth. “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape” applies not only to individuals and their ability to cope with life’s changes, but also to institutions on a whole, who most cope with the same kind of environment that rewards those who are able to pass on their character and culture while being able to handle the storms of life. We would do well to provide a balanced approach to building leadership potential within our institutions that properly develops those who are a part of our institutions to serve based on their talents and abilities in a way that rewards long-term loyalty and provides an opportunity for advancement where it is merited, for the benefit of all.
 See, for example: