A kindly-looking elderly gentleman came to my door at the weekend clutching a Bible and asked me if I agreed with the statement “The meek shall inherit the earth.” He’d interrupted my daily session with my copy of  Teach Yourself Yogic Flying so I was feeling rather grumpy; as I remember, I sent him away with one of those standby phrases one employs in such situations such as “We don’t buy salvation at the door, thanks.”

After he’d gone, I reflected on what I felt in hindsight was a rather interesting question.  I looked up ‘meek’ in the dictionary.  It said: “Mild and gentle of temper; submissive.” Hmm.  On balance, my general view is that the meek are only likely to inherit the earth with the aid of a good life coach. Before a succession of kindly elderly readers beat a path to my cyberdoor to remonstrate with me, I’m not inclined to argue with the religious or moral position that pride and aggression are generally undesirable qualities; certainly if all my clients were mild, gentle and submissive I’d get a lot more done, and might even have retired by now.  But in a world in which we gather daily evidence that those who shout loudest appear to get what they want, who exactly is first in line for the celestial equivalent of winning the lottery?

There’s a rich seam of personal development thinking which argues that the path to success lies in walking a stylistic tightrope between meekness and aggression.  Negotiators call this ‘win-win’; Californians, “I’m OK-You’re OK”; you might call it The Way of the Bodhisattva if, as I do, you like to cultivate an illusion of intellectual depth.  But in the bigger picture, at an organisational level, what quality is it that moves us all forward, that causes organisations to truly evolve?  

Leaping deftly from the religious to the scientific, meekness seems to have no place in evolution.  But, as with personal effectiveness, the opposite is not necessarily any better. ‘Survival of the fittest’ is a popular rallying cry of the louder and more aggressive among us, who regard it as carte blanche for weeing on everyone else from a great height; but it’s only one version of an evolutionary truth.  ‘Adapt and survive’ may be closer to the heart of it; a rallying cry for controlled mutation. 

Take giraffes for example.  A relatively mild, gentle and submissive creature.  But in evolutionary terms, assertive in the extreme.  Imagine a prehistoric world of short-necked proto-giraffes.  No food at ground level?  No problem: produce a few mutant offspring with bizarrely long necks, let them thrive on the higher richer vegetation, allow a few hundred generations to mate and suddenly you have a genus equipped for survival (alright, no emails please, I suspect there’s a bit more to it than that, and I’ve probably misused the word genus. But at least I know what a bodhisattva is).

There’s a certain amount of research to support the idea that lasting organisational change is the product of a similar process.  The guru (as opposed to bodhisattva) Edgar Schein wrote about organisational mutants being the key to moving things forward.  He didn’t call them mutants of course, but ‘innovators’: in his terms, these are individuals who respect the core norms of an organisation (the essential rules of survival), but who don’t worry about the peripheral norms (the unspoken, often anxiety-driven assumptions about how things should be done in this organisation).  In other words, it is through challenging everyday assumptions that one finds new and better paths to growth. 

Another influential study found that the most successful organisational change often starts with a pocket of ‘mutants’ somewhere in the company who agree between themselves that they’ve found a better way to achieve results.  They enshrine their new process, then involve internal customers and suppliers.  Eventually top management gets wind of it and sanction is required, but usually by then the benefits are apparent: to stretch the analogy to breaking point, if the leaves are high, and you’ve managed to grow a long neck, people will usually see that they don’t need to run around looking for ladders.

The problem for the Meek is they are temperamentally disposed to follow both core and peripheral norms.  Interestingly though, their more aggressive colleagues generally do the same thing, but are more dangerous in that they enforce both sets of norms through a climate of fear.  The true mutants are aggressive enough to sniff out opportunity, but gentle enough to seize it without being destructive.  The creative challenge for organisations is: how do you identify and nurture enough mutants to maintain a law of requisite variety?


Copyright © Phil Lowe, 2004.  All rights reserved

Author’s note: I must give a nod here to my friend and colleague Ralph Lewis; we jointly explored the theme of the organisational mutant in our book Management Development Beyond the Fringe.