Adaptability as a New Premise for Social Stability
Like individuals, civilizations are shaped by experience and by ability. Societal systems evolved to provide security and conditions conducive to survival. Over time, societies naturally acquire knowledge, and order is maintained through the development of customs and laws. Because war and anarchy were usually a constant threat, those in power -- and often their subjects, too -- were compelled to maintain and protect the inherited system of order.
The legitimacy of the ruling class was based on its inherited or asserted claim to power. Not surprisingly, its main objective was to maintain and expand its position. People then chose to abide by traditional rules, even though their conditions were intolerable. Demands for progress and freedom were not tolerated. Maintaining traditions and cultures for the preservation of the society as a whole was the overriding priority, and this mind-set guided people's thoughts and behavior.
Obviously, the social order of those days was neither adaptable nor capable of development. Military action and, more often, the loss of competent leadership often resulted in the complete breakdown of social order and the need to start all over. The notion of innovation for the benefit of humankind, which we expect of our society today, was unheard of.
This model of social order shaped world civilizations for thousands of years. Even periods of great stability did little to correct the two major weaknesses in the system: dependence on scarcely legitimate powers and inflexibility in authoritarian structures. A repeating pattern of cultural stagnation followed by destruction and reconstruction were seen as inviolable elements of human fate. That changed when the social and ethical influences of law and religion challenged rulers' claim to power. That process continues today, through debate on human rights, the individual's relation to the state, democracy's dependence on solidarity and subsidiarity (the principle that a central authority should perform only those tasks that cannot be performed at the local level), and the significance given to morality and culture.
In the last two centuries, social objectives and existential conditions have developed worldwide that inevitably call into question the rules of order handed down from the past. I refer here to the following developments:
humanity's self-perception, influenced by the French Revolution
democracy as a form of government
global communication and cooperation
These developments have made possible a higher standard of living and, more important, greater individual freedom of thought and action. Once able to examine outdated power structures critically, new groups at all levels of society began to update the old system. Social learning gained ground, supported by democracy, especially with regard to people's personal goals and self-perception.Basics of Social Reform
Establishing a new social order that was to function under completely changed conditions and with new objectives posed a new challenge, however. Culture and tradition influence us all more profoundly than we would like to think, and adopting a new system of order requires parting with old habits and vested privileges. Learning is difficult and time-consuming, and it cannot occur without conflict. History has shown often enough what can happen when a new social trend is introduced too quickly or proves too intellectually challenging for society. Extensive change demands commitment, courage, and patience. It also requires the participation of individuals and their willingness to learn and change.
By developing new techniques and evaluating and comparing the results, we can find workable solutions. This process occurs in free market competition and could be useful in other areas as well -- in politics, for example, and in the public sector. As we accept responsibility for restructuring our society, we should take advantage of the opportunity to learn from one another in an open world. We can avoid costly mistakes by exchanging our experiences internationally. We must now set new goals in our search for an alternative concept of order: identification with the community, humanitarian principles, efficiency, flexibility, and the ability to innovate.
For innovation to succeed, people must accept the learning process that lies ahead and carry out reform in a decentralized fashion. The task at hand is far too multifaceted and complex to control centrally. We are dealing here not with a one-time reform but with the establishment of a system to create and support a learning society. Only by means of a pluralistic, decentralized approach and the commitment of many leaders can we expect sound solutions and ongoing progress. Creating the conditions for such a commitment is an important task of our democratic state. We must learn to become a responsible and active civic society!
The nineteenth century saw various attempts to restructure the labor sector, and disputes arose as workers confronted nearly the same historically based problems as did employees in the political sector. Experience, vested rights, laws, beliefs, and habits had created a system of order that could fulfill people's needs only under specific static conditions. Workers' efforts to achieve financial and social equality were considered dangerous to the system, because the system was based on premises of social and financial inequality. The progress made in the twentieth century can, for the most part, be traced back to democratic initiatives and the union movement. As today's ongoing discussion of humane and efficient economic structures demonstrates, however, this progress is still unfolding. Never-ending battles for a share of the pie and the failure of the employment markets clearly show that our economic system is not yet sufficiently capable of innovation. This applies to all areas of society.
The principles for reform outlined above must include legitimate mandates for leadership. Ultimately, society will accept only competent leaders. Competence is extremely important today, as most tasks cannot be carried out by a single central body. Management techniques require that those who are to shoulder delegated responsibility -- junior managers -- must identify with the objectives and regulations of the organization. However simple adherence to rules is no longer the main priority. Creativity, efficiency, and initiative are the new requirements.
It follows then that new personnel concepts must be developed for executive management. Attitude, character, and performance must emerge as decisive elements of executive recruitment. Traditional criteria, such as rights of ownership, will inevitably fail. Human resources personnel can make satisfactory recruitment choices when they are better informed about job profiles and the possible candidates. While this is not yet the case, we can create the conditions for it. In view of leadership's importance, reforms in this area must include performance-oriented criteria for senior management. Only people who identify with their jobs, who assume personal responsibility for them, can succeed under these circumstances.
Excerpted from Humanity Wins by Reinhard Mohn. Copyright © 2000 by Reinhard Mohn. Excerpted by permission of Crown Business, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.