Monday, April 13, 2015
The Individual and the Institution: A Lesson in Organizational Ethics from Star Trek
As Latter-day Saints, we often live out our lives within the semipermeable boundaries of various organizations, including the Church, without ever considering the nature of the organizations themselves, their ramifications in our individual lives, or their influence on our relationships with each other. Needless to say, the relationship between the individual and the group is one not only of premier importance, but also of inherent tension.
The Needs of the Many and the Needs of the One
We are social creatures, we Homo sapiens, both in mortality and in eternity. Ultimately, we are members of the family of God, but certainly that family was organized into smaller, overlapping divisions in the premortal existence, just as it is here in mortality and as it will be in the eternities to come. Indeed, our identity as individuals and as children of God is largely defined by our interactions with others within organizations. But organizations and individuals often have competing needs. Organizations should exist to serve the needs of individuals, but inevitably every organization, in order to fulfill its purpose, must at times preserve its own existence, often requiring the sacrifice or at least subjugation of individual needs. This fact creates inescapable tensions between institutions and individuals. The Church, of course, is not immune to these tensions. While the organization exists to help perfect and save the souls of men and women, sometimes the institutional needs of the Church, real or imagined, create for individual members a variety of difficulties, including perplexing moral and ethical dilemmas, most of them revolving around the intertwined principles of authority and obedience.
As Star Trek’s Spock reminds us when he sacrifices his life to save his shipmates on the Enterprise, sometimes “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” “Or the one,” adds Captain Kirk.1 But as Kirk explains when he and his crew subsequently return the favor by risking their own lives to rescue Spock (after his “resurrection” on a crumbling planet), sometimes “the needs of the one . . . outweigh the needs of the many.”2 The needs of the one and the needs of the many: such a simple idea, but such a perplexing paradox.
Bonner Ritchie, a professor of organizational behavior and a former colleague of mine at BYU’s Marriott School of Management, acknowledged this almost unavoidable tension: “The individual and the organization are not inevitably pitted against each other, but there is always the high probability of a negative effect which must be guarded against. . . . We cannot make organizations safe for people. Instead, we can help people protect themselves from organizational abuse, and we can free people to develop their creative potential using the organization as a resource, rather than as a limiting force.”3
Structurally and culturally, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is more complex and more inscrutable than most business or government institutions, and this creates an even greater probability for tension between the individual and the organization. Add to this reality the constraints the gospel places on the exercise of authority, and the Church presents some unique challenges, not only for those who are supposed to exercise authority, but especially for those who must figure out how and when to obey it. A first step in navigating these tricky waters is to understand a few basic ideas about the nature of the organization. I covered some of these basics in previous posts about the double hybrid nature of the Church as both ecclesiastical community and corporation, and as both theocracy and democracy.
In the Church, we talk a great deal about building God’s kingdom on earth. In fact, the Lord himself insists that we build his Father’s kingdom (see, for instance, Mark 1:14–15; Luke 9:2; D&C 65:2, 5–6; D&C 76:107). But why so much emphasis on building God’s kingdom? Just so he can feel self-important and say, “Look at this impressive kingdom I’m the ruler of”? Of course not. The whole point of building God’s kingdom is that it provides a place where God’s children can reach their full potential as individuals, where they are free to become as he is. And anyone who gets the idea that the kingdom is more important than the individuals who make its existence desirable and possible will inevitably behave as a petty bureaucrat and will specialize in abusing authority and frustrating others.
In the Star Trek scenario mentioned above, I believe it is significant that Kirk did not command Spock to give his life for the survival of the ship’s crew. Spock voluntarily made this sacrifice to save his shipmates. Similarly, when Kirk and his crew later risked their lives to rescue Spock, they did this voluntarily, not because Kirk had given them an order. The needs of the many sometimes do outweigh the needs of the few or the one, but in these cases, the few or the one are not simply to be tied to the altar (or the warp drive, as it were) and sacrificed by force. Ideally, they will be given the opportunity to voluntarily make that offering.
This principle is illustrated most aptly by the voluntary nature of Christ’s sacrifice for the salvation of the many. “Whom shall I send?” the Father asked (Abraham 3:27), and two volunteered to go, although their motives were far from identical. The Father asked for a volunteer not because he himself was unwilling, but because he was unable, being immortal, to perform the required sacrifice. Likewise, a true leader will never ask a follower to do something he or she is not willing to do. Unrighteous dominion often consists of the opposite, of a manager or administrator ordering the troops into battle from the rear or even from afar. As organizations grow in size and complexity, however, and as rules and regulations abound, the sacrifice of the individual on the altar of institutional expediency often results from the sheer weight of organizational momentum and from regimented authority whose source and purpose have been lost in the haze of hierarchical complexity.
The best leaders always understand that organizations exist to serve people, and even when they must make difficult decisions regarding the continued existence or effectiveness of the organization, they never forget that it is the people that ultimately matter.
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Hollywood: Paramount Pictures, 1982). The only method Spock could find to save his shipmates was to manually repair the ship’s warp drive and, in the process, absorb a lethal dose of radiation. This exchange between Spock and Kirk takes place through a transparent wall after the ship is safe. Spock dies, and his body is sent to rest on what turns out to be an unstable new world, where the technology that created that world also brings Spock back to life, which sets up the reason for the next movie, and a reversal of Spock’s reasoning about the needs of the many and the few, or the one.
2. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Hollywood: Paramount Pictures, 1984).
3. J. Bonner Ritchie, “The Institutional Church and the Individual,” Sunstone 22, nos. 3–4 (June 1999): 103, emphasis added.