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Leadership at Divergent Belief Systems

Each of us has a shared system of beliefs and values that systematically define our way of perceiving the world. Our belief systems influence our reasoning and affect our decisions. At times two belief systems can diverge and the beliefs of the first system become the major premise for reasoning applied to both. When this happens the outcome for the second system is not always logical or predictable.

Leaders do not always share the same belief system as those they serve. This is no more evident than at the interface of government managers with underserved populations. What happens when government managers apply reasoning based upon their beliefs to underserved people who have distinctly different belief systems? Why are the outcomes difficult to predict and at times costly?

Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond provides context for this discussion in his book Guns, germs and steel. Diamond writes that up to about 10,000 years ago all human societies were hunter-gatherer based societies. Subsequently, geographic areas supporting domesticated plants and animals spurred the development of agriculture-based societies. Settled agricultural societies generated surplus, thus freeing some members from full-time hunting and gathering and gave them a chance to further influence social structure. In time, this gave rise to the agriculture-based societies, and later the industry-based societies, that have become the world’s dominant cultures.

In A Dictionary of Sociology, Gordon Marshall defines a dominant culture as one that is able, through economic or political power, to impose its values, language, and ways of behaving on another culture or cultures. The beliefs and values of the dominant culture can differ greatly from those of the non-dominant culture. For example, there is stark contrast in the manner in which the industry-based societies of today’s dominant cultures and the hunter-gatherer-based societies of non-dominant cultures practice leadership. Jared Diamond writes that all members of hunter-gatherer societies, including leaders, participate in hunting and gathering activities, which contribute to the welfare of all. In industry-based societies, leaders manage and administer and do not directly participate in production or necessarily manage to the benefit of all. The result can be a divergence of the two cultures on the key concepts of responsibility and accountability.

What can happen when a dominant culture government manager defines the entry point for a non-dominant culture population to access government services? Consider this example from Alaska. Prior to contact with European culture as little as 100 years ago, human societies in Alaska were exclusively hunter-gatherer societies and continue to this day to be rooted in hunter-gatherer traditions. A syllogism applied by government managers to develop infrastructure in Alaska Native villages can look like this: planning is essential, the development of a plan is the first step to achieve positive and sustainable change, therefore, the implementation of an infrastructure business plan is a necessary first step to achieve sustainable infrastructure in rural Alaska villages.

Now consider what can happen when this reasoning is brought to its “logical” conclusion? In Alaska, as elsewhere, government managers are directed by laws, regulations, and policies that are largely prescriptive and follow steps that are linear, sequential, and progressive. Traditionally, life in Alaska Native villages, and the manner in which local leaders administer to the welfare of the people in the villages, follows a cyclical pattern. Seasons come and go, and come again, as well as the runs of fish, migration of animals, fire fighting season, gatherings with other villages for carnivals, basketball, and first dance, and the naming of children to honor and respect the spirit of those who have passed.

In Alaska Native villages, program distinctions of what constitutes primary health care, community planning, education, and public safety can tend to blur in consideration of the well being of all and everything (animals, fish, water, air, and land). Village identified priorities can be ongoing, overlapping and broad in scope (for example, to protect customary and traditional use or subsistence). Most villages identify strongly with original band, Tribe, and place, and value autonomy.

Over the years many village planning efforts have been started and not finished, or finished but not implemented. Whereas government managers view the development and implementation of a plan as a demonstration of local organization and accountability, village leaders have come to view prerequisite community planning as largely one more requirement or obstacle in accessing government resources.  The challenge is this: the people of a village often face immediately threatening conditions for which they need assistance. This could be an uncontrolled and burning open dumpsite near the village or an epidemic of suicide among young people. Planning as the first step toward attaining sustainable infrastructure falters for two related reasons: the act of planning in and of itself does little to address acute needs, and planning in a way defined by others is generally not compelling.

Where a process is composed of ten steps, a village may decide to start with a pressing issue that is step three.  This is based on the awareness that in the cyclical nature of things the opportunity to address step one and the other steps will, in time, present itself again. Prescribing the village to start with step one can be counterintuitive of the village leader’s understanding of responsibility and accountability.

Government managers must be aware that applying their reasoning across belief systems can have unpredictable outcomes. This awareness is important in developing the ability to defer to   those they serve for a starting point to address community needs. By acting on this awareness, government managers can bridge divergent belief systems to attain the best possible outcome for all.


Joe Sarcone is a regular contributor to PA TIMES. His other commentaries include: A Leadership of Public Service, Work at the Interface: Governments in Service to Indigenous People, and Work in the Gap: Governments in Service to Underserved Populations.





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