To Think Like Others

Intentional communities have lessons to learn from mainstream business - and business is learning from communities

One of the articles in Living Together (IC#29)
Originally published in Summer 1991 on page 23
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

In 1985, Corinne McLaughlin and Gordon Davidson published Builders of the Dawn: Community Lifestyles in a Changing World, still one of the best books on intentional communities. Founders of the Sirius Community in Massachusetts, and former members of Findhorn in Scotland (both of which serve as alternative education centers), McLaughlin and Davidson now move back and forth between the “alternative” world of intentional communities and the “mainstream” world of business and consulting. As they explain below, these worlds have more to learn from each than you might expect. Contact Sirius Community at Baker Road, Shutesbury, MA 01072.

Robert: What have you learned since Builders of the Dawn? What would you add to it now?

Corinne: I would give more thought to the political implications of community living. Although we wrote about leadership, decision- making and conflict resolution, we didn’t write very much about politics. That’s surprising, because that’s a subject with which we’re very involved now – the book we just finished is on politics.

Gordon: The greatest learning for us has been recognizing that the future development of a balanced system of governance requires the integration of the principle of democracy and egalitarianism, together with the principle of hierarchy and apportioned responsibility of authority. These two principles are inextricably woven together. When you watch how people really function in groups and in political arrangements, you realize that if you don’t integrate these principles, you get into very serious difficulties.

We have worked for a long time in what gets called “the alternative movement,” where there is an extreme emphasis on democracy and egalitarianism. Oftentimes that doesn’t allow real leadership and authority to be exercised. What we’ve learned is that even though we are all “divinely equal,” we are at different stages of manifesting and expressing our divinity.

Diane: How would you characterize these “stages of divinity?”

Gordon: Different people are at different levels of energy, consistency, and ability to take responsibility. It seems to me that out of the effort to allow everyone full empowerment, we sometimes disempower the people who have more capacity. This has been a very key lesson in our own community. There is a core group of people who have been here a long time, and taken on a lot of responsibility over the years, and proven capable of doing that. They should have more authority than people who are, say, just doing the bare minimum. Of course, this is a well-established principle in the mainstream. But it tends to be excessively applied in the mainstream, without allowing the empowerment of individuals.

Robert: Communities such as yours have started to learn more directly from the mainstream. What can the mainstream learn from communities?

Gordon: The work of communities is highly relevant to government, to politics, and to mainstream organizations. We’ve learned that you can empower individuals, and allow them opportunities to fully develop and express themselves to the maximum of their capacity, but in a setting where there are clear lines of responsibility, authority, and decision-making power. These are the areas where the balance of those two principles I mentioned earlier are being worked out.

Of course, a lot of what you see in corporate consulting these days is taken directly from alternative processes. These are being pushed right into the corporate mainstream by people who have translated them.

Corinne: Gordon and I are now working back and forth between the alternative and the mainstream, and I find it a fascinating dynamic. The emphases in each sphere are mutually educational.

The problem with mainstream hierarchies is that they can be quite oppressive and disempowering. So, how do you have hierarchy without it being disempowering? We talk about having a “hierarchy of compassion,” where the responsibility is for the good of the whole, rather than a hierarchy of power or dominance over the whole. How you work that out on a practical basis is the cutting edge of politics, and the cutting edge of a lot of growth occurring in both the mainstream and the alternative community.

Gordon: These are serious challenges, because we are trying to recreate group process and organizational structure, and I don’t think there is any perfect model. Trying to be aware of both those principles simultaneously isn’t easy.

In addition, there is often a dilemma within communities, because there is something about communities themselves which tends to attract people who are in some ways misfits – sometimes because they are creative, sometimes because they have emotional problems. Such people tend to resist any kind of professionalizing processes.

Robert: Yet some of the most successful communities seem to have developed a professional niche.

Gordon: A fair number of communities now have very successful businesses, ranging from organic farms to computer software firms to education and healing centers. Originally, people created communities to live on the land and find a simpler way of life – grow their food, build everything from nothing. But a lot of people decided that wasn’t the way to go. They created businesses they could feel good about working in, while also making a decent living. A lot of communities that still exist are the ones that have been able to successfully find that balance.

Diane: Isn’t community living also significantly less expensive?

Gordon: People in communities can often live quite comfortably on $500 a month, with a car and everything else. That is pretty phenomenal in the current economy. It also gives people the opportunity to do other things, because they don’t have to be constantly working. This is an important development, because people begin recognizing there are real benefits to cooperation that are individually rewarding.

Robert: Having founded Sirius in 1978, how has your leadership role evolved over the years?

Corinne: For founders, developing the right balance between some sense of hierarchy and leadership, while also empowering people, creates an interesting dynamic. No matter how much you try to share power and responsibility, there is a subtle dependence on founders. So we have to find ways for other people to take on more leadership.

Robert: And travel, or temporary relocation, is an excellent way to do that.

Corinne: Yes, we have found that to be the best way. Other people get practice at taking on new things, and many people have stepped forward who hadn’t before.

We also bring a lot back from the city – new ideas, creativity, and business skills – which has been great for our education.

Diane: What can people do to become more involved in intentional communities, without drastic transformations in their personal lives?

Corinne: Land trusts [a form of community property ownership] and cohousing [Danish-style clustered and cooperative housing] are very good bridges for people who are moving out of an individualist lifestyle, but aren’t ready to jump into something quite as committed as the intentional communities we wrote about in Builders of the Dawn. I think both will be very popular in this country [see IC #21, “Building a Cohousing Community”]. Where people have common values and common commitments, and work out their conflicts together, they move towards some degree of community, even though they may only share values like how to treat the land. They don’t make a commitment to do that in the beginning, but in fact they start sharing childcare, or sharing more meals together, and community develops naturally.

Diane: Does intentional, communal living help the individual gain a more holistic perspective?

Corinne: Definitely. Living in communities really helps you see other people’s point of view. The longer you are there, the more you learn to think like others. For instance, different individuals in a community may be concerned about particular issues, ranging from finances to nature. If those people were missing from a community meeting, somebody else would bring up their issues of concern to the group because they knew how that person might think.

Gordon: Each person has a facet of the whole diamond. As you integrate more perspectives, the more powerful and comprehensive your decision making will be, and therefore more likely to be aligned with something higher.


Creating Community In The Workplace

Many people tolerate work, and then depend on their homes, families, and organizations to provide sanctuary from the competitive business world. After many years in the software development business, I decided to bring other values besides competition to my work place. For my own well-being, the most important value was building community at the place where I spend the majority of my waking hours.

I spend eight hours a day writing and managing technical book projects, and I have struggled with the issue of my purpose on this planet. How does this work serve humanity? I’ve come to the conclusion that while it does provide a benign service, it does not address immediate problems of hunger, health, and education. I also struggle with the notion that I am working to make someone else rich. My preference is to participate in a worker-owned company that provides a needed service and competes in a local free market, which, I believe, could combine the best of cooperative and capitalist approaches.

But my thinking about greater purposes and worker-owned companies has not yet manifested into action. The one thing I have helped along, however, is the building of a dynamic, nourishing team that gets the work done. The consensus of our team members is that we are proud of the work we have accomplished, and we still like one another now that our 18-month project has ended. We have become a community of workers as well as a community of friends.

This is how we did it:

* As project lead, I made a decision that the people on the team came before the project or product requirements. It’s my theory that people create work so that we have an excuse to spend time together. So, by adjusting my own priorities, I think everyone felt cared about as individuals. Because I expressed my caring for them, they were able to more freely give themselves to the process of writing, editing, and producing books, and to willingly share information among themselves.

* I have used conflict-resolution techniques with groups such as the Greens and co-housing communities, but I wasn’t sure how these techniques would translate into the business world. As it turned out, I didn’t need to use the techniques; instead, I simply put forth the idea that conflict was something to be addressed. Team members felt free to bring up intra-team conflicts (such as the predictable struggles between editors and writers), and together we cleared them up with me acting as an informal mediator. A number of the team members showed courage in addressing their conflicts with one another directly, rather than letting resentments simmer and disrupt the work of the team.

* I encouraged innovation and creativity by promoting consensus-style management. At our team meetings, we took turns sharing information. I would report information from other groups with whom we worked, but much of the meeting was devoted to team members reporting their progress and problems and information to one another. Together we made decisions about the configuration of the books, deadlines, and other issues.

* I got out of the way and encouraged co-operative leadership. I wanted any member of the team to be able to serve as project lead if needed. Some team members were clearly not ready for this responsibility or they simply did not want to take it. But whenever the opportunity arose, I delegated tasks and responsibilities to others, and tried to keep my mouth shut when I saw a team member do something differently than I would do it. I did jump in and lend guidance when it was needed. I don’t think co-operative leadership means the leader is off the hook in terms of his or her responsibilities to the team members or the company. But if I erred, it was toward trusting the abilities of the team members. I was usually right in the gamble.

We know that this style of team building worked for each of us, but did it work for management? I doubt if management of this software company would be thrilled at the notion that the people came before their products (and even profit). But then management usually responds best to results: we delivered quality goods on time.

– Roberta Wilson

Roberta Wilson lives in Seattle, WA.

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