Five Truths III: leaders of hierarchical organizations become disconnected

I began this series of blogs on “my truths” with an introduction to the project and then explored “My Truth One (that modern agriculture is not sustainable).”  My second truth examined the tension between public good and private benefit. This post examines the third of “my truths.”


My Truth Three:. . . the leadership of the farming community has come to rule farm policy, often at the expense of small and mid-sized farmers, farm workers and rural communities.  

There was slightly less agreement with this statement among survey respondents (see my introduction blog for an explanation).  Only 76% indicated strong or full agreement.  One participant noted the complexity of the situation:

“I can’t lump all farm leadership into the “bad” column because I know and work with some extraordinary farm leaders who are regularly overlooked by the sustainable ag community.  For instance, Farmers Union has not veered from working on behalf of small farmers, farm workers, and outside the conventional system, but rarely gets recognition for it.”

 Another participant disagreed for a different reason.

“I don’t consider the folks in charge to be leaders of any kind of community — but that is contingent on my definitions of leadership and community. Community requires love and generosity of spirit, and these qualities are notably absent from farming policy.”

Still another sees this as part of a larger pattern.

 “…the leadership of the farming community has come to rule farm policy, but it is only fronting for the interests of powerfully concentrated private capital.”

These are strong statements and seem to carry a fair amount of anger.  If we can get past the anger, we might begin to notice how all large organizations seem to allow their leaders to become disconnected from the vast majority of their membership.

Most organizations have promotion and reward policies that support individuals who conform to the dominant paradigm.  Talented conformists are the people chosen for positions of power and higher rank.  Talented ‘trouble makers’ rarely find themselves in positions of authority, and when they do – they generally lose some of their ‘fire’ as they learn to compromise to get along.  Why is that?  What happens to people when they get into positions of power?  It seems they get disconnected from the ‘rank and file’ and more important perhaps, they seem to lose track of the mission of the organization.  Of course this is not always true.

I know many organizational leaders who have dedicated their talents and passion to serving their organization with integrity.  At the same time, I’ve seen many more begin a leadership career with strong ideals of service only to get beaten down by power and politics.  I don’t think we should blame the individuals.   In today’s typical organizational hierarchy of power-over relationships and competition for resources, many are led to sacrifice values they care for deeply, just to survive.

In a hierarchy of power, successful leaders may lose their focus on mission and values just to keep the organization afloat.  Even well-meaning sustainable agriculture organizations are susceptible to this problem.  One survey participant wrote;

“Sustainable agriculture organizations have succumbed to the same treadmill, competing for grants, members, and other resources, the goal becoming the survival of the organization rather than the vision that created the organization.”

Replacing old leadership with new voices rarely changes systems built on hierarchical power-and-control relationships.   All of our mental models of how organizations work (especially with respect to the relationship between leaders and followers) carry this fatal flaw.  Leaders and followers (members or employees) act in collusion, expecting leaders somehow to know what is wrong with complex systems and how to ‘fix it.’  This is a form of dependency that is not healthy in a living system or community.

We need to understand how organizations create an environment in which leaders and members alike have internalized power-over ways of thinking and accepted either the role of “boss” or of the “bossed.”  Power-over thinking makes domination and control normal and acceptable.

T.S. Eliot, warns us that;

We shall die of the absolute paternal care

That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.


As long as our mental models of organizational behavior assume that leaders are to provide ‘paternal care’ the power relationship between leaders and followers will be sustained.  Even the most well meaning people and the most service-oriented organizations seem to evolve cultures of competition, disconnectedness and oppression based on power-over thinking, all seemingly for a good cause (well mostly).   But the result is always the same.

Part of the problem is the hierarchical model of organization and part of the problem is our “busyness”.  Stopping to think about the situation requires an investment in time.  But we are running so fast to sustain the status quo that we can’t even wonder if the status quo is worth preserving.  Busyness kills sustained thought and creativity.  My “forth truth” shall examine this systemic problem of organizations built on the industrial model.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my posts. And finally if you are ready to study sustainable food and farming, check out our our Bachelor of Sciences degree program.

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