Tag Archives: Transparency

An Ownership Advantage

I attended a party last week.

The gathering was in recognition of  The Minnesota Chapter of the ESOP Association.  The chapter is one of 22 chapters nationally, in the association which represents the 15,000 employee-owned companies across the country.    Minnesota has been a particularly strong chapter in the network and over its 25 years has been a strong contributor to the employee ownership movement.

Parties are normally fun and friendly occasions, I suppose, but this event contained a special air of zealotry.  The 75-80 folks who attended are among the most enthusiastic supporters of the shared capitalism idea, and they are never bashful about displaying such passion.  These were the people who have either led the chapter or been especially active in its work; they are champions of the cause and the effects of employee-ownership.  I had not seen many of these people for nearly ten years, since I retired from the employee-owned Foldcraft Co. in 2005, so the gathering had the feel of a grand reunion.

All of that context provided more than enough reason for a stellar evening, and indeed, the laughter and the hugs were genuine all through our time together.  But there was something else in the air.  There was a tangible feeling that this group of ownership advocates exuded an intensity of knowledge, some sort of awareness that other organizations don’t necessarily experience among their members.   That perception, merely felt by some but outwardly acknowledged by others, recognized the immense power of their shared sense of ownership .

Let me be clear on one major point: not every member of every employee-owned entity demonstrates a deeply-felt sense of commitment, empowerment and liberation.  But those who are able to envision their own development within an ownership mindset have often defied the odds in creating opportunities and experiences for themselves and their enterprises.

In fact, organizationally it’s true whether there is an actual ESOP component in place or not.  Entities that are managed under the terms of transparency, broad participation, engagement and a sense of shared outcomes perform better, feel better, last longer and ultimately have a more positive impact upon the societies in which they serve.   That requires the right people, the ones who share in a vision and who possess the energy to want to go there.  In the words of author Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great:

But I know this much: if we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.”

On Thursday evening, the ballroom was filled with the right people.  They have been and continue to be consistent champions of encouragement and commitment for everyday workers to access equity ownership.  They know that such an opportunity is actually a component of our holistic health.

It’s a universal need.  We want to claim a deep and rich ownership of our lives, and the places where we work constitute a major portion of our time.  We long to be integral parts of our labors rather than simply renting out our time and skills.  We need to know what is happening in our vocational lives, what is impacting us, what we can do about it, how we can do better.  Where we have come together in our work organizations, we sense that it could be possible to truly belong to an endeavor bigger than ourselves, in some cases maybe even more important than ourselves.

Some of the best-managed companies around the world have recognized this truth.  The most stable and productive governments have operated under principles of democratization, which are still the envy of people in non-democratic societies.   Employee-owned enterprises often “get it,” as reflected in annual workplace survey data.  And in addition to data, I suspect that we recognize intuitively that fully collaborative efforts will almost always outperform individual ones; “none of us is as smart as all of us.”

It’s a truth that Winds of Peace is working very hard to teach this reality to rural cooperatives in Nicaragua, as well.  It may run counter to the model the government uses.  It may fly in the face of the big company executives there who have copied the traditional corporate models from the U.S.  It even challenges the cultural and historical patterns that shape societal behaviors.  But it’s a lesson worth teaching, and one definitely worth learning.

It’s an advantage that we celebrated last week.  It doesn’t represent the easiest manner in which to organize and operate.  But it’s certainly the best….



The Emperor’s New Clothes

You recall the story.  A vain emperor who cares about nothing except wearing and displaying the finest clothes unknowingly hires two swindlers who promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or “hopelessly stupid.”  The emperor’s ministers cannot see the clothing themselves, but pretend that they can for fear of appearing unfit for their positions and the emperor does the same.  Finally the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the emperor marches in procession before his subjects.  The townsfolk play along with the pretense, not wanting to appear unfit for their positions or stupid. Then a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but continues the procession, unwilling to acknowledge the truth that everyone can see.

We’ve all experienced similar circumstances in our lives, where the plain truth is clouded by distorted words and intentions meant to distract us from reality.  For instance, political advertisements which have little regard for accuracy bash the truth every day during this current political season.  Corporations are famous for speaking in euphemisms which are meant to justify the unjustifiable.   Some attorneys make their careers on the basis of clever turns of phrase which are designed to deflect light and reality.

I don’t know why I expect anything different in the non-profit world, but I do.  I somehow became possessed of the notion that amidst all of the self-serving and self-interest in society at-large, the philanthropic community and its service providers might have carved out a niche wherein the desire to do some good would outweigh any other motivations, that here is where conscience would finally catch up with career.  But not really.

I received a marketing piece in the mail this week that caught my attention, not due to its intended message, but because the content so blatantly refuted reality.  The glossy, multi-page brochure was sent by a large, well-known firm which invests funds for foundations. The materials include a 10-page essay by the CEO of the company, whose fundamental message is that the growing income disparity in this country is not really conclusive and that, even if its is really that bad, hopefully the voices in pain won’t be loud enough to bring about any meaningful policy reform.   He goes on to hope that the voices “agitating for much of the change” will go away or prove to be “immaterial.”

The second item in this truth and enlightenment package is a slick, four-page analysis by the firm’s director of investment strategy.  His message is shorter, but no less obfuscating of the truth than that of his boss.  He cites five telltale signs that a bull investment market might be coming to an end and then, one by one, explains why no such evidence exists today.  Among those telltale signs, he cites the risk of monetary tightening, and explains away our current monetary reality with these words: “It may not feel like it, but the economy has been normalizing.”  I found this characterization of our economic status boldly self-contradictory.  If the economy is normalizing, I would expect that the one true litmus test would be that people are, in fact,  beginning to feel less discomfort, fewer threats to their economic well-being, less inequality.  That is not how the majority feels about their current, personal, economic standing.  A normalizing economy ought to bring relief.  But this executive brushes over the reality of what most people are experiencing and says it isn’t true, that things really are getting back to normal.

Both pieces are replete with the obligatory graphs, charts and statistics to back up their claims.  They describe the finery of the garments, the elegance of the fit and an implication that anyone who cannot see the wisdom in their words must be “unusually stupid,” in the words of the fable.  I find the materials even more evocative of the emperor story as I look at the photographs of these two leaders in their crossed-arms, regal poses of trustworthiness.

It is true that this firm (and its master tailors) is only a peripheral provider to the philanthropic community.  Perhaps it is overreaching for this reflection to condemn an entire industry on the basis of a representation of one firm, regardless of how large and influential it may be.  But if the philanthropic community truly cares about its works, its impacts and its reputations, then perhaps integrity warrants a closer examination of its bedfellows.  After all, we are known by the company(ies) we keep.

Saying something does not make it so.  Like the emperor, we may not want to recognize the truth of having been fooled.  But it’s better than fooling ourselves….

“It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”                                                                                                                     –Macbeth


Culture, With Three C’s

I referenced here last week in my entry, “It’s All In the Game,” that The Gathering of Games Conference is one that is full of energy and, frankly, full of joy.  It sounds strange to refer to a business conference in those terms, but I think they’re appropriate descriptions.  First-time attendees like my Nicaraguan colleague Rene Mendoza recognize it immediately and cannot help but comment upon it.   In fact, I overheard one participant ask, “Where does all that energy come from?”

The answers to that question could take many forms, because there are many ingredients that constitute such a sense of excitement, including the personalities of the attendees themselves.  But one of the conference break-out sessions provided one perspective that I thought stated the organizational reality pretty well.  It’s not a formula, but wisdom seldom presents itself that way.  In this case, the insight comes in the form of three C’s:


However one might try to define it, character is the glue that holds organizations together.  Even if an organization is temporarily performing acceptably, that performance will be negated in the presence of motives that are personal to its leaders.  Leadership lack of character cripples organizations.

Some leaders simply love the power or their position and the ability to manipulate others with it.  Some seek their own self-promotion.  Others might recognize the chance to leverage their authority for the sake of a few.  And within these instances, the seeds of mistrust, doubt, fear and indecision take root to destroy organizational hope.  It may be assumed that leaders will deeply respect the responsibility entrusted to them, but character is not always sound or automatic.

The character of an organization- its sustainability and chances for positive impacts- is shaped by the character of its leaders and followers alike.  Where members seek to serve as good stewards of their authority and resources, their organizations have a much better chance of surviving and thriving into the future.  And good stewardship simply means the motivation to nurture and protect the the interests of all members and the community-at-large.  It’s the care exercised when members have entrusted to their leaders their economic, social, cultural and community futures for safe-keeping.  Character is the measure of how any of us cares for such precious matters.  “Our character is what we do when we think no one is looking.”


Of course, organizations must possess the intellectual and energy resources to accomplish their objectives.  But before anyone dismisses this need as too obvious, consider the kind of competence needed.

First, there is the need for the personal competence of the organization’s members.  In a corporation or non-profit entity, members are hired according to the specific knowledge or experience they can contribute to the institution’s success.  In a cooperative or non-profit, members are added according to the specific knowledge or experience they can contribute to the organization’s success; the members must be added on the basis of their common objectives with the other members, and their willingness to contribute personally to the strength of the group.  Too often, organizations are weighed down by the tonnage of unwilling and therefore incompetent members, people who have joined only for the benefits and none of the work.

Secondly, the organization itself has to demonstrate competence.  Throughout its ranks of members, the organization has to ensure that every player is is clear about what is expected.  In successful enterprises, organizations are specific in emphasizing the needs for everyone’s contributions, that without each member supplying his or her piece of the puzzle, the picture can never be completed.

Competence also builds upon the need for the right character.  Character, and all of the expectations of it, can be a learned attribute like any other.  When individuals and their organizations become clear about the need for certain competencies, a high level of ethical behaviors rises to the top of the list.  Such actions only become the norm when the organizational culture expects it.

Finally, if the organization has acquired or developed essential competencies, it can begin to work on business competence.  In short, the members must know, truly understand, how the organization will succeed.  Members have to know the “business equation,” what actions will drive success, what each of them must contribute.   If each player in the game does not have such insight, they might well be playing a different game altogether.  And when members are playing by different rules, seeking different outcomes, the organization loses.


As if the first two matters of character and competence weren’t demanding enough, it turns out that when our organizations have finally experienced success, it’s not enough.  Exercise of stewardship character and personal/organizational competence have to become the habits of a successful organization, practiced, repeated and refined consistently by its members.  Habits are no more than repeated patterns of behavior, and every act by every individual every day has the potential to become habit, good or bad.  Strong organizational consistency is the ability to reinforce the strengthening habits and eliminate the weakening ones.  The best organizations have discovered the importance of teaching its members the differences between the two.

Like competence, consistency builds upon the issue of character.  The strongest organizations maintain a reliably consistent posture with regard to issues of integrity; there are no “situational ethics” which permit decisions that are not in keeping with the organization’s character.  And the greater the consistency of character, the easier it becomes to demand the same of every member.  There are no exceptions to what is right.

The three C’s described above constitute a big part of the high energy experienced at The Gathering.  People become naturally enthusiastic in environments where there is trust, where members can be confident that their teammates have accepted their responsibilities, and that such behaviors can be counted upon day after day.

It’s true for organizations in the U.S. and ones in Nicaragua.  It’s true for businesses and non-profits.  It’s true for secular and church.  It’s true everywhere because it resonates with the human soul.  Organizational environments like these free people to become more than they may have thought possible.  That awakening creates energy, and makes the hallways at The Gathering alive with dreams….



It’s All In the Game

I’ve just returned from a particularly interesting business conference, “The Gathering of Games,” with a colleague of mine from Nicaragua.  Rene Mendoza is the Interim Director of NITLAPAN, an institute specializing in research on and the creation and publicizing of new, local, rural and urban development models and methodologies.  We thought that the themes from the Gathering- teaching financial transparency, broad participation, engagement of an organization’s people- fit closely with the development workshops that Rene and his colleagues have undertaken recently with rural coffee cooperatives supported by Winds of Peace.  We were not disappointed: the wide range of organizations and speakers represented at the conference of over 400 participants provided story after story of transformational success, with results to make even the skeptics say “wow.”

The Great Game of Business is the title of both a book and a movement.  (If you haven’t acquainted yourself with the concept and the company, I urge you to do so.)  But it also stands for some of the most basic needs of organizational life and development, whether in a business, a government agency, a non-profit or other organizational model.  Come to think of it, they’re pretty good guides for personal life, as well.  And within the simplicity of these basic ideas lies the unqualified success of the concept.  In short, they change not only the organizations that people inhabit, but the lives of the people themselves.

Rule Number 1: Know and Teach the Rules.

Every organization- every organism, in fact- has a formula for success.  There are certain things that have to happen in order to experience surviving and thriving into the future.  For all too many organizations, those rules, those keys for success, are known to only a few.  Maybe it’s because it’s because things have always been done that way.  Perhaps access to such knowledge is regarded as a “perk” to a select few in the organization, a sort of “special secret” made available as a badge of honor to high-ranking members.  Or just possibly, these essentials are simply unknown to the majority of people in an organization and there has been no perceived need to know them, that they are, in fact, the province and concern of others.

Whatever the reason, when organizations reserve the understanding of the success equation to only a few, the organization has limited itself, and sometimes fatally so.  To play any game, the entire team has to know the rules, what strategy is being followed and how to score.  It’s not enough for only some players to know, because they’re not always the ones who are capable of scoring.

If I don’t know the rules, it’s essential for me to learn them.  If my colleague doesn’t know the rules, it’s essential for me to teach him/her.  We only win together.

Rule Number 2: Follow the Action and Keep Score.

The only way to know whether we’re winning is by keeping score.  In a cooperative, it might be measured by how much harvest is produced, or how much is paid for it.  In a business, it could be the total sales made, or what kind of profit was generated.  For a non-profit, it ought to be a measure of the impact made in the lives of its clients, however measured.  Whatever the enterprise, it’s not really worth undertaking unless there’s a means to measure the outcomes.

But it turns out that those final outcomes are also made up of many smaller actions, activities contributed by every member of the organization, in some way, big or small. And before we can expect to measure positive outcomes on that final scoreboard, we need to be tracking those smaller, individual contributions that make up the final score.  That’s the responsibility, the duty, of every organizational member to every other member.  It’s the fabric that holds the organization together, that makes it strong or weak, that allows it to grow into the future.

Sometimes it’s hard for individuals to feel personal responsibility for an organization populated by many others; it’s easier to let others take on the obligations.  But that’s like asking a teammate to do all of his work as well as yours, while expecting the same rewards in the end.  It’s not fair, and it doesn’t work.  Being engaged- following every bit of action- is the price that each of us must pay in order to win.  It’s what feeds the scoreboard.

Rule Number 3: Everyone Needs A Stake in the Outcome.

There are no hangers-on in successful organizations (or at least, not many or for long).  That’s why a stake in the outcome is critical to organization strength.  And that stake in the final score comes about in at least two ways.

First, a stake comes about by an individual and all members investing themselves in the organizational group.  It requires a commitment, a pledge, a willingness to do the things that must be done in order to succeed.  If all the planning, or all the financial support, or all of the field work is done by someone else, it’s hard to feel any sense of ownership of an enterprise.  But it’s that sense of ownership, the pride in having something that belongs to you, which drives people through the difficult times and allows for no quit.  Care for an organization only happens when its members have invested a piece of themselves in it.

Second, a stake comes about in the form of rewards, the reason that people invest in the first place.  And on any team, if anyone wins, everyone must win.  If a World Cup soccer or World Series baseball team paid only a few of its members after victory, that team would dissolve in chaos and anger.  Other organizations are no different. It’s neither just nor sustainable to allow only a few to reap the benefits that have been created by the many.  And there is no more certain way for a team, a coop, a business or any organization to fall apart than to allow an individual or group of leaders or a family to be rewarded with benefits that belong to the entire group.

It turns out that organizational development is the great game.  Behind the three basic rules above, there are a myriad of techniques and methodologies designed to build trust and values and genuine caring for one another, and I’ll address some of those in the days to come.  But for starters, the week just ended has affirmed for us that it all begins with the three very simple and wrenchingly-difficult tenets above.

As is true for many games, sometimes it comes down to how badly one team wants to win….



Dear Coop

Dear Coop:

I was very happy to meet with you once more; I hope that far less time goes by before my next visit, because sometimes absences can be corrosive for healthy relationships.  It’s much easier to imagine things about one another- good or bad- when we’re not often together.

You have experienced a difficult year, to be sure. You have struggled with several internal governance issues that are pivotal for your future direction.  You have faced a brutal attack on the coffee plants by the coffee rust disease that has decimated your harvests.  Your cooperative has taken on significant debt, just at a time when economic resources have become very tight.  At times, you must wonder if there is any future for the cooperative and, if so, whether it will be worth your effort to participate.  I have some ideas about that which I thought I should share with you, even though I’m just a North American visitor to your part of Nicaragua.

First, about those governance issues.  There is no better time to repair them than now.  Organizations always seem to have management problems that need fixing.  Most often, they come about when an individual or small group of members assume more authority and power than they’re entitled to.  As a result,  they are inclined to become less open, less transparent, with the other members of the coop.  They begin to make decisions without a broad consensus.  And in time, the decisions that are made tend to favor that same group of decision-makers, even if the choices being made hurt others in the collective.  That seems to be at least part of what you have had to face lately, and I feel sad that you have experienced what becomes a lack of trust and confidence in your own organization.  After all, you “own” the cooperative and it should be working for the benefit of all members, not just a few.

When an organization is performing well economically enough so that everyone is benefitting, governance problems like those described above may be tolerated by the members; after all, why fix something that doesn’t seem to be broken too badly?  But when difficulties arise, the “rocks in the water” become visible and floating downstream is unsteady. The problems become more visible, more painful, less tolerable.  It seems like that’s where you are today.  So, there is no reason to delay facing the troubles and addressing their corrections.  The best time to bail out a boat is when it begins to leak!

The good news is that your repair kit is already in your hands.  Your leadership has changed. It is leadership that wants you to be part of the solution, wants you to know what is happening within the coop so that collectively the best possible decisions can be reached.  The solutions to your organizational problems are in your own hands; there is no greater wisdom about your needs, your obstacles and your future than in your own experiences.  You might not have all the answers, but if you are working together you can discover where to find them.  No one of us is as smart as all of us.  My question would be: what are you waiting for?  Your need is now.  Your new leadership is now.  The coop needs you and your commitment to make it succeed, for everyone this time.

Second, the coffee rust.  Wow, what an unexpected disaster!  I know that this fungus has been around before, but maybe never quite like this year.  You have said that partly it’s due to the weather pattern.  Or maybe from a depletion in the soil.  Others have blamed the high incidence of infestation on the lack of sufficient preventive practices of some producers.  Or even the type of coffee plant that is grown.  I’m not a biologist or coffee technician, but I suspect that the epidemic was created from a combination of all those causes.  There’s rarely a simple answer to something that has created such a massive loss.  But there is an answer, right?

It’s going to be the same thing with regard to its solution.  It’s unlikely that any one answer is going to prevent a reoccurrence of another disastrous harvest.  But there are answers, as proven by some of your colleague producers who suffered far less damage this year.  It may require a commitment to invest more than in the past.  In turn, that may require a deferral of certain purchases or expenses for personal goods.  But whatever the solutions may prove to be, they will be far more effective, far more consistent, if you decide to adopt them as a community of coop members.  That suggests learning from one another- coop to coop- more than in the past; it’s like having free answers to problems just by talking with one another.  I guess I’m back to the organization issue: you’re much stronger together than you can possibly be apart.  Winds of Peace commissioned a study on the causes of the rust problem earlier this year.  I think it’s important reading, if you haven’t already seen it.  Let me know if you need to have a copy of it.

Third, this debt of yours that seems way too big to ever conquer.  I know that it looks unsurmountable, and that the holders of the debt might even be threatening the coop with all kinds of legal actions and consequences.  But I think taking action from a posture of panic can lead to some pretty bad results.  So I’d suggest addressing the issue with great deliberation and care, not speed and reaction.

For starters, Winds of Peace has continued its commitment to you in one form or another, so that’s a positive.  We’re not in a position to remove all of your debt, for sure.  But having an initial partner, an initial sum from which to work, we at least have a chance of getting through the storm represented by debt.  You have some technical expertise available through consultants and organizations who really want to see you succeed.  You’ve even got resources for legal help to discover a solution that can work for everyone involved, IF the coop is willing to do what it takes to survive.  I’m not saying that’ll be easy or pleasant or a short-term answer.  But few things of lasting value ever are.  I happen to believe that your coop is worth keeping.  I have the confidence and faith in your collective abilities, otherwise Winds of Peace wouldn’t be partnering with you in the ways that we are.  But the work is yours, and it will be difficult.

Well, I guess I’ve said more than I ought to in this letter.  After all, it’s easy for an outsider to give lots of opinions.  After having my say, I get to walk away and can forget the tasks that you have.  But I won’t.  I think about you every day, with the hope and the belief that the opportunity you still have in front of you is worth fighting for.  And I’ll keep paying attention until you either decide to give up or reach success.  Let me know how things are going!




Anatomy of a Betrayal

Stories about unscrupulous behaviors visited upon unsuspecting innocents are commonplace these days.  From politics to business, from banks to non-profit organizations, from developing countries to supposedly well-developed nations, from organized fraud to scam artist, the tales all seem to end with a similar result: somebody entrusted with power and/or authority has stolen from somebody else who could not see the deception coming.  Nicaragua, unfortunately, has had more than its share of  such history and the result is that such acts have tended to spawn more of the same.

I recall meeting the members of a second-tier cooperative up in a coffee growing town in the Madriz province area years ago, and discovering a philosophy and practice that really got me excited about what might be possible in working with rural coffee coops.  Here was an organization which spoke of holistic, community development, educating its members on all aspects of what it means to become whole and healthy, and involving its women members in financial education.  We provided loans which were always repaid timely.  The coop grew in stature among producers in the countryside and in many ways modeled what was possible when peasant producers linked up with a progressive, connected leadership.  In several subsequent visits over the years, we re-connected with this organization, always coming away with a renewed sense of hope that organizations like this one could be replicated elsewhere in the countryside. On more than one occasion, we referenced what was happening there to other coops with whom we met.  When Winds of Peace began funding a series of workshops in the area, including all members in the coffee value chain, this group responded with its presence and its participation as a leader in the territory.

Quite suddenly two years ago, there came “rumblings” from the territory that something was not right with this second-tier coop, that some mishandling of coffee and revenues had occurred and that the family occupying the primary leadership role within the organization had been misappropriating resources.  The claim was a bombshell in the region, both for the members of the coop and the people of the surrounding communities.  Police were involved, auditors came to assess, funders nervously checked in with the leadership.  We did, too.

Not wanting to believe that the accusations were true, WPF met with the president, who is also the son of the original founder and president.  We spoke directly about our concerns arising from the accusations.  We asked point-blank whether the principles and objectives espoused years earlier were still in place, or whether they had changed in some ways.  We asked whether there was any hint of truth to the allegations and, if not, what might be precipitating such claims.  (Politics was the culprit, we were told.)  More importantly, we had the opportunity to look straight into the eyes of this young man and discern for ourselves whether we were hearing the truth.  We came away convinced that the coop was still on very solid footing.

The sad truth is, he lied.  In subsequent months it became clear to everyone that in recent years the coop had been used for the personal enrichment of its leading family, that some loans received by the coop never made it into the hands of its producers, that coffee commitments made by the leadership could not be fulfilled, and that an enormous indebtedness had been incurred in the name of the coop, while none of the funds could be accounted for.  This once brightly shining star had tarnished seemingly overnight, and the tarnish had been spread to the unsuspecting peasant producers who had trusted in its integrity and promise.  This has been a tale of corruption and betrayal of profound impact, and its victims completely undeserving of such fate.  Except for one small matter.

The cooperative is nothing more or less than its name implies, an entity owned by its members, its benefits and responsibilities shared by those members.  Therein lies a significant piece of the problem.  For as deceiving as the perpetrators have been in this episode, it is the closed system that they created which allowed them to syphon coop assets for their own use.  The lack of transparency made for an easy cover-up, long enough for the family to temporarily cover their tracks, recruit several key confederates, avoid suspicions and establish a set of outcomes which would both insulate them from prosecution and further enrich themselves even as the coop’s bankruptcy plays out.  Their plan was fiendishly clever and utterly without regard to the financial impact upon the hundreds of family members who had trusted them.  But this closed system which allowed the cover up was also the direct result of coop members who did not pay attention, who trusted blindly, who shed their own responsibility in exchange for the ‘ease” of letting someone else do it.  Too little knowledge, too little participation, too much trust, and too late to prevent a collapse.

It’s a formula all-too-common in Nicaragua.  The “gatekeepers” of coops and Indigenous governance and other organizations occupy a place of  control, whether intended or not.  And in that space they can come to recognize not only the power they wield but also the  ease with  which they can deceive.  It’s a temptation that might infect any of us, but especially after being in a position of want and need for so long.  Finally, we might think to ourselves, there is a chance to do something for myself, for my own family, even at the expense of my neighbor.  It might be a price that any of us would be willing to pay and that too many elected leaders have chosen to accept, and never with good result; in the end, somebody must absorb the hurt.

That pain is not the burden of WPF.  We have sustained disappointments in the past and there will be more in the future; the human condition does not encourage perfection.  Nor does the continuance of our work depend upon the performance of any one actor or group.  The pain is the burden of those brothers and sisters who relied on the integrity and honesty of their leaders only to discover that the enticements of easy money were too great for such leaders to ignore.  And the pain, eventually, is also the burden of those who would abuse the trust of their neighbors.  Because in time, the easy money is spent away on things that do not last.  But the scars of betrayal last forever and leave a legacy of shame that remains long after the violation.  The pain burdens both the victims and the perpetrators alike, and the circle of loss is complete.

Such a postmortem as this may seem to offer a despairing view of future development progress.  But the remedies for this ailment are relatively available, clear and demonstrably effective.  The wall of betrayal is prevented when members of a group stay connected and active.  The disease of unilateral decision-making is cured when participants decide to participate.  The veil of deceit is pierced when leaders are held accountable for transparency and truth by the peers who they represent.  These remedies could be cited as requirements by funders and technical groups which purport to serve our sometimes inexperienced partners; organizational leadership and governance are hardly topics taught in whatever limited schooling partners may have had.  And the irony of these actions is that they not only maintain the integrity of the organizations, but also enhance their performance, as people can openly see the cause-and-effect of their actions.  In the U.S. it’s sometimes referred to as “open-book management” or “ownership thinking.”  Whatever its label, it represents the curative for the ailment of the closed system.  And in the case of a once-promising coop in Madriz, it might well have derailed what has become an organizational and community train wreck….





The Power and the Weakness of One

  • One of the headlines in the news this week was the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.  Although he died at a relatively young age, Chavez has seemed to be in the news headlines forever, sometimes for his outrageous statements, sometimes for his larger-than-life persona, sometimes for his disparagement of United States policies abroad, and often for his utter disdain for Western-style capitalism.  He demonized Western leaders, befriended outcast, “rogue” governments around the world and consolidated his power in Venezuelan politics until he controlled it almost single-handedly.  Indeed, there were few agencies of Venezuelan government which did not feel the pressure of the Chavez grip.  He garnered the support and even love of many Venezuelans due to his posture for the poor.  And then, there was all that oil lying beneath Venezuelan lands, which provided him with the platform from which to be heard by all parties, foreign and domestic.

The word “charismatic” has often been used to describe Chavez and his swashbuckling style.  He rarely fell victim to diplomacy when a straightforward bellowing could get his position across, a characteristic which befuddled unfriendly governments but which endeared him to the people of Venezuela; he was elected to the presidency four times.  During those years, he increasingly identified himself as not only the president, but as the very country itself, blurring the line between the nation and the nationalist.  If nothing else, the government of Venezuela during the Chavez years was “a one-man band.”  He wielded his voice and his power unilaterally.

In Nicaragua, Chavez became a foreign patron, providing the Nicaraguan government with access to cheap oil and lots of it.  The economic pacts made between Chavez and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega were largely secret affairs, but ones touted by the Nicaraguan leader as being enormously helpful to the Nicaraguan economy and its people.  But they were accomplished, as much of the Chavez legacy was, man-to-man, on a one-to-one basis.  And within that posture of apparently straightforward, uncomplicated, effective relationship building lies the problem: it was but one man.  Nicaraguans might now rightly be asking, “Now what?”

Chavez is now gone.  And for all anyone knows, his intentions, promises, relationships, knowledge, and strategies might now be gone, as well.  Because the man became the country.  He was the whole show.  The broad participation and transparency of government that might have solidified an entire generational movement in Venezuela were never given the opportunities to take root, and thus the strength of the man and his country became its weakness, as well.  Time will tell whether his successor will  perpetuate the policies and directions fostered by Chavez, but one thing is clear: even if the strategies do continue, they will do so at a slower pace and with diminished impact due to the Chavez leadership style.

It’s both the blessing and the curse of singular leadership.  When one leader makes all the decisions and possesses all of the authority, he /she becomes the identity of whatever institution is being served, whether governmental, business or non-profit.  If that identity is a positive one, the organization can become well-served by the strength of that individual’s charisma, talent, integrity and caring heart.  But if that individual is all that the institution represents, then it will be as fleeting as snowfall in Spring.  Any organization needs strong and even charismatic leadership to be planted and spread throughout its ranks so that its roots are deep and its life is lasting.  It’s the way that continuity is assured and the way through which followers really understand what they are cheering about when the leader leads.  And no one of us can ever be as smart as all of us.

Working in Nicaragua, I wonder what changes will come about with the passing of Chavez and his secret agreements.  Will Daniel Ortega suddenly find himself in a partnership without a partner?  It’s an important question that every one of our partners needs to ask when they seek to build stronger, more lasting organizations.  A coop member’s health and strength may come from organizational solidarity, but organizational solidarity is built upon the ownership engagement of all its members….