Honor the heretics

In an organization – as in society – there is an important distinction between faith and religion. 

Faith is belief in the organization’s mission, supported and embodied in its values and long term goals. In a successful organization, faith is a common good, co-owned and held by the entire community.  Leadership doesn’t own or control faith, but functions as steward and guide, helping the community stay connected with (and by) their shared faith.

Religion is the set of rules, regulations and tradition that govern the way members of the organization are expected to behave in pursuit of the mission. It functions as a ‘how to manual’ for the community as it acts upon its faith. Management’s role is to administer religion in service of faith, facilitating and coordinating activities that support faith.

There is a mistaken belief in many organizations, just as in many spiritual communities, that religion is both necessary and sufficient to achieve success (in the organization) or salvation (in the spiritual domain). Untrue. Faith is what matters. Religion is merely a tool, and by itself, of little value and potentially quite destructive. In both society at large and within organizations, religion commonly becomes a substitute for faith. It sometimes becomes an enemy of faith. The more threatened a community (organization or spiritual) becomes, the more complex, rigid and staunchly defended will be its religion and attendant myths and rituals. Search for truth becomes secondary to dogma, and service to faith is replaces by a reliance on obedience to the past.

And that is why the heretic is so important. Seth Godin’s description is hard to improve upon:  "Religion is the set of rules created to maximize the chances that you will do what the manager wants you to do. A heretic is someone who has faith but could care less about religion."  In organizations, religion (hierarchical and structured management) is designed to exert tight control at the expense of autonomy, to maximize compliance and conformance over individual expression and discretion, and to promote top-down command over passion-driven performance.  The heretic, in the words of Apple’s campaign to Think Different, is to be honored, celebrated: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in square holes. The ones who see things differently."

From the perspective of religion (management), all change is against the rules. While the manager tries to preserve the past, it is the heretic, driven by the passion born of faith, who has the courage and will to flout the rules, to question the status quo and the premises on which it is based, and to experiment fearlessly with an eye to the future.

The future doesn't unfold top-down or center-out so much as bottom-up and outside-in. The organizations and cultures that are most welcoming to heretics find ways to lay out the welcome mat for fringe elements. Scour your organization - and beyond - for positive deviants, invite dissent in all of its forms. Don’t struggle to shape people to fit your mold. Evolve and adapt and innovate. Open yourself to those with distinct and foreign points of view, intimidating enthusiasms, and frightening eccentricities not in fear but in hope that they might reshape you. Spend time with people who are not like you and whom you may not like. And make it possible for as many voices to be heard and perspectives to be considered as possible. Foster dissent. Design a forum or a regular ritual for people to offer up alternative points of view.

You might be surprised. And you won’t be sorry.


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