Community Symbolism, Transformational Leadership & Systems Thinking

Article Series Transcending Conventionalism to Transform Communities by Robert J. McKenna (M.O.L.) CEO; Altruesoft & Founder of the  Citizen's Public Safety Network.

Contrary to our senses, community is not composed of the physical structures that surround us. Community
reaches far beyond our senses, unfortunately, too many of those in position of influence fail to grasp this notion. Pitirim Sorokin firmly believed that Western Culture is fundamentally influenced by a value system that's predominantly objective and dependent on the senses. He explains our sensate ideology in the following way:

"The sensate value system holds that matter alone is the ultimate reality and that spiritual phenomena are but a manifestation of matter" (Capra, 1982, p. 31).

While city hall, chambers of commerce and related institutions may be a corporeal place to gather to discuss
relevant civic issues, it is the human need for community that truly brings people together and forges the true
spirit of community building. This may seem like a trite rationalization, but if this were the case why do so many
civic leaders and their active constituents continually pour their energies and financial resources into the material
aspects of community building & promotion. Try as they may, community spirit is not formulated in council
meetings and municipal engineering blueprints. The roots of community spirit stems from an environment that
nurtures the interdependent aliveness of its inhabitants. David Clark, author of Basic Communities (1977) and
editor of the magazine Community, articulates a spiritually transcendent definition relating to the symbiotic
nature of community: I, therefore, define community as essentially a sentiment which people have about
themselves in relation to others and others in relation to themselves; a sentiment expressed in action and
behavior but still basically a feeling. (p. 4)

These relationships can be thrust into being through the shared energy of mutually held leadership, or what
James MacGregor Burns (1978) defined as transformational leadership. Influence of this kind is more effective
in the long run because transformational leaders "define the need for change, mobilize commitment to those
visions, and ultimately transform the organization" (Tichy Devanna, 1986 p. 4).

What is currently needed in our communities is a form of leadership that transforms followers to transcend
beyond the false notions of conventional reality. Einstein's questioning of the ingrained notions that governed the
physical sciences of the early 1900's, lead to a more valid understanding of the universe. A universe
that lay beyond our immediate senses. Likewise, Gandhi’s political reform, through the use of non-violence, was
in stark contrast to the traditional means that dealt with the overthrow of oppressive governments. Throughout
history there have been numerous examples of leaders who defy the established order. In doing so they elevated
the awareness of humanity to embrace more genuine perceptions. Transformational leadership of this nature
illuminates the need for change while simultaneously articulating a collective vision for a more desirable future.
This tends to be a far better blueprint for igniting community spirit.

Once in a while civic leaders unwittingly set the stage for the transformational process; however, more often
than not they fail to finish the performance. Transformational leaders often employ the theatrics of symbolism in
an effort to rally others to embrace a collective vision. Similarly, city council members, in an effort to promote a
cooperative village setting, utilize architectural symbolism to foster order. In some cases this type of urban
renewal does bring about a state of confidence and community members begin to take pride in their
surroundings. In communities where order has decayed to the point where law-abiding citizens live in fear, such
physical symbolism can provide a sense of optimism- typically when situations are this bad any change can be
viewed as an improvement. "In such a situation symbolic leaders will try to do something visible, even dramatic,
to let people know that changes are on the way" (Boleman and Deal, 1991, p. 449). While an improvement to the
physical environment is an effective initial step, all too often civic leaders fail to follow through and promote the
intangible aspects of community building. Or in the words of Margaret Wheatley, author of Leadership and
the New Science (19921), "We now sense that some of the best ways to create continuity of behavior are through
the use of forces we can't really see" (p. 12).

When examining the intangible aspects of governing people we must be aware of the natural laws of the
universe that take precedent. "Intentionally or not, we work from a world view that has been derived from the
natural sciences" (Wheatley, 1992, p. 6). With this in mind, those in positions of influence must be cognizant of
a system's inherent tendency to decay. The premise of the second law of thermodynamics states that there are
exponentially more disordered states than ordered states. Furthermore, those ordered states are in a continual
state of entropy. Stephan Hawkings, a physicist who is considered one of the greatest minds of the twentieth
century, illuminates the following condition characteristic of ordered states:
Suppose a system starts out in one of the small number of ordered states. As time goes by, the system will
evolve according to the laws of science and its state will change. At a latter time it is more probable that the
system will be in a disordered one because there are more disordered states. Thus disorder will tend to
increase with time, if the system obeys an initial condition of high order. (1988, p. 146)

The relevance this law has for human communities has several implications. First, it illuminates the notion that
change is inevitable. Second, it clarifies that systems continually undergo spontaneous change. And thirdly it
explains that as systems try to cling to their initial states of order, disorder will increase. When community
leaders try to enforce a status quo by rigidly sticking to concrete process they will eventually undermine the
very order that they are trying to maintain. In light of this, leaders must develop a flexible mindset that
anticipates system metamorphosis. "Disorder can play a critical role in giving birth to new, higher forms of
order" (Wheatley, 1992, p. 11). A sentiment in the Chuangtzu, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom, reflects this
dynamic process:
In the transformation and growth of all things, every bud and feature has its proper form. In this we have
their gradual maturing and decay, the constant flow of transformation and change. (4th-century BC)
If applied appropriately, leadership has the ability to nurture and channel the inevitable processes of entropy
into higher organizational forms, provided that they remain permeable to the external environment. Communities
must be open to their surrounding environments. If they don't they will lose the vitalness that transformation
offers. Ashkenas, Ulrich, and Jick, (1995), observe that this process is starting to take hold in some of today's social
systems when they report; "Rather, it is a social and economic shift from rigid to permeable organizational
structures and processes" (p. 1).
When communities remain closed and resistant to change, the life-sustaining energies of its members are lost. This
also draws an additional comparison to the second law of thermodynamics as it relates to the entropy of systems.
"Since usable energy is lost in irreversible energy transfers, entropy increases in closed systems" (MacIntosh, 1987, p.

Many of today's progressive communities encourage citizen interaction between its members and those
involved outside immediate surroundings. Civic programs that set-up community and police manned houses
have dramatically decreased juvenile crime in their neighborhoods. When communities cooperate with local
business, through sponsored leagues and cultural events, a greater sense of civic pride solidified the bond
between business owner and citizen. Often, on TV news programs, we hear of extraordinary events that
transcend traditional barriers to unify government organizations, business, and community. All three factions
work together through mutual support and the interchange of talent.

By sharing expertise and resources each agency is allowed to still retain its autonomous structure while
simultaneously promoting permeability between systems. When this occurs strengths are shared and the overall
macro system has greater energy and vitality. Once again we can look to the poetic examples of nature. Since
mother nature understands that entropy increases in a closed system it ingenuously designed its most basic
building blocks of life, the plant/animal cell, to be permeable while still retaining the integrity of its purpose-that
being the structural foundation of the organism. Ashkenas, Ulrich, and Jick (1995) highlight this analogy in their
book, The Boundaryless Organization.

In living organisms, membranes exist to give the organism shape and definition. They have sufficient structural
strength to prevent the organism from devolving into amorphous mass. Yet they are permeable. Food, blood,
oxygen, and chemical transmitters flow through them relatively unimpeded so that each part of the organism can
contribute to the other parts. (p.4) Individual living cells are dependant upon the physiological needs of blood, food and oxygen and each particular need is supplied or processed by one to nourish another. Unique cells make up a particular specialized organ which provides services to sustain others and the cooperation of each system supports the entire organism.

Are human communities any different? From a mechanistic perspective, the overall interdependent sub-systems
that support the entire structure are similar. However, it seems to work better in living organisms, than in human
communities-provided that the organism is healthy. Unhealthy life forms, like unhealthy communities, often
have breakdowns in one of their subsystems. The conventional way of dealing with a particular subsystem
breakdown involves isolating the malfunctioning entity from its whole, "fixing it" and inserting it back into the
system. This approach works very well in static machines assembled with specific parts that were designed to
work in linear progression. However, this approach fails to cure breakdowns in living systems. Living cells, life
forms and communities are not static mechanisms but growing processes continuously interacting within their
internal and external environments. "Whereas the activities of a machine are determined by its structure, the
nature is reversed in organisms organic structure is determined by processes" (Capra, 1982, p. 268). To isolate
and repair a living entities malfunctioning part without considering its relation to the whole is futile.

The interrelatedness of organic matter is dependant upon cyclic patterns of feedback between each subsystem
and its larger macro system. If there is a breakdown in any of the systems it will influence other processes
between and within the entire organic whole. Replacing worn-out parts in a machine works because they
function on a cause and effect order, on the other hand, living entities are controlled by dynamic relationships
and subsystem effectiveness is reliant upon the ability to adapt and conform to the whole. In living systems parts
are not reducible to isolated subunits that can be understood separately.

In organic form subunits can't be separated from the whole. If a smaller system breaks down it has to be
regenerated with the continual support from the surrounding macro system. Unlike machines parts are not
replaced, but recreated. This means that the living organism is self renewing through its capacity to recycle
components while simultaneously maintaining the integrity of the overall structure. Unfortunately, our current
mindset can't get past the mechanistic viewpoint. If this ideology continues it will have grave consequences for
the future, mainly because it has proven to be very ineffective when trying to govern living systems like human
communities. This mechanistic view of the universe was grounded in Cartesian philosophy and very progressive
during the 17th-century. It ushered in the scientific era and removed humankind's medieval blinders. However,
in the 21st-century, as we witness the failure of an ever-increasing number of social systems; we are slowly
beginning to question the soundness of such a mechanistic ideology. In Mindwalk (1990), a movie base upon
Capra's book The Turning Point, one of the main characters, a physicist, illuminated Rene Descartes clock-like
view of the universe: [Descartes asserted] I consider the human body as nothing but a machine, a healthy man is like a well made clock, a sick man is like an ill made clock,… [the metaphor worked] so successfully that scientists came to believe that all the autonomous laws of the universe, laws that are as absolute as that which they govern, i.e., space and time.”

If the governance of human communities continues to be reduced to mechanistic structures, then the
perception of isolated subsystems influencing the whole will persist, and it will be hard to
comprehend the contrary notion of the whole influencing its parts (Frey, 194, p. 103). As the physical
science slowly begins to reveal the secrets of the quantum universe, we see that our world's natural state
consists of parts being governed by the whole. "Whereas in classical mechanics the properties and
behavior of the parts determine those of the whole, the situation is reversed in quantum mechanics: it is
the whole that determines the behavior of the parts" (Capra, 19982, p. 86). There our mind opening
implications in this discovery for community sociologists who hope to manage the behavior of fringe
elements in society, as opposed to the other way around.

With the discovery of quantum physics, a portion of Newton's laws are no longer relevant.
"Newtonian mechanics still apply to our world and still contribute to scientific advances, but a new
and different science is required now to explain many phenomena-Quantum mechanics, the most
successful theory ever developed in physics, does not describe a clock-like universe" (Wheatley, 1992,
p. 30). Like Wheatley, other progressive social scientists and organizational behavioralists believe that
the Newtonian patterns of thought are outdated and need to be refocused to encompass broader
perspectives. "These problems as we shall see in detail, are systemic problems, which means that they are
closely interconnected and interdependent" (Capra, 1982, p. 25).

As sociologists strive to find new solutions for community dilemmas it is important that they
understand Newton's mechanistic viewpoint because it still, for better or worse, carries great influence
in today's society. Additionally, community architects must also understand the world from which
Newton came, mainly, because it provides an example of how difficult it is to present nonconventional
perspectives. We are likely to see similar resistance by current orthodox leaders as we undertake
cultural transitions in the new millennium. Isaac Newton and his contemporaries; Galileo Galilea and Rene
Descartes, much like many of today's leading social commentators, presented new patterns of thoughts that were
contrary to the traditional ways. By understanding the challenges they faced in their era, we can gain a greater
context of the difficulties presented when introducing unconventional viewpoints.

We can also see, from our historical perspective, the far-reaching societal impact of their new paradigms.The
worldview given to us by these renowned scientists and philosophers should not be understated or taken for
granted. In one form or another they have led the way for the advancement of the human community. Their ideas
came at a time when they were desperately needed. Before their contributions human lives were governed by
dark uncertainties and superstition. In it's day, Newtonian theory was sorely needed because traditional science
was dictated by prejudices, customs and the non-rational. Isaac Newton's invention of calculus and ground
breaking work in theoretical physics further ingrained the periods faith in man's ability to reason. Most historians
would agree that Galileo, Newton and Descartes were among the brightest luminaries of the enlightenment.
Jonathan Cottingham, professor at, the University of Reading, confirmed this observation regarding the
significance of Rene Descartes:
Beyond question, Descartes was the chief architect of the seventeenth-century intellectual revolution which
destabilized the traditional doctrines of Medieval Renaissance scholasticism, and laid down the
philosophical foundations for what we think of as the 'modern' scientific age. (1995, p. 188)

Prior to the age of enlightenment, Western culture was under the dominion of beliefs dictated by priests, sacred
texts and tradition. These beliefs were the backbone of the Church and the Church was the foundation of the
community. Whosoever questioned the Church's authority threatened infallible "truths" and undermined the
community. Such individuals where called heretics. Likewise, those who propose unconventional or
controversial ideas concerning today's social problems are often labeled with similar insulting titles, i.e.; kook,
bleeding heart, fanatic. Today, as in the 17th-century, people who hold unconventional viewpoints question the
officially held dogmas of society. In 1633, Italy's Galileo Galilea was perceived as a heretic due to his endorsement
of the Copernican theories of heliocentrism; a stark contrast to the Roman Catholic doctrine of Ptolemaic
geocentrism. A century earlier another Italian, Christopher Columbus, advocated that the earth was round.
Columbus's claims flew in the face of conventional reality. His faith and determination lead to the discovery of
the New World. Similarly, Galileo's telescope and Descartes ontological philosophies ushered forth new ways
of viewing reality.

All of these individuals called previous dogmas into question and the consequences lead to greater
understanding and prosperity for the human community. The new science of quantum physics also
questions what was thought to be absolute truth. Three hundred years ago society slowly began to accept
the Galilean idea that the earth was not the center of the universe. Today, thanks to Edwin Hubble, we
now believe that there is no center to our expanding universe.

Three hundred years ago we were reassured by Newton's theories which stated that our world is
governed by absolute laws in a predictable universe. Now, once again we must question past
assumptions. The discovery of Quantum Mechanics has cast a shadow on the mechanistic nature of
Newton's predictable clock-like universe. Currently, progressive community, business and educational
leaders are looking towards the findings in physics and systemic thinking to over come the "bare
cupboard" ideology of reductionism. In her article, Transformational Quality and Leadership (1994),
College President; Zelema Harris, employed Wheatley's Quantum Physics leadership metaphors to
distinguish the difference between conventional [Newtonian] and "new-way thinking":
Quantum Mechanics, the most successful theory ever developed in Physics, does not describe a
clock-like universe. The quantum world has been described in various ways. One scientist describes
it 'as nothing that is fixed or measurable.' Another says it is a world of 'dynamic patterns
continually changing into one another-the continuous dance of energy.' Others say it is a place
'where everything is interconnected like a vast network of interference pattern.' (p. 34)
History has demonstrated that each new scientific discovery tramples the foundation of its
predecessor. A new ideology over-rides the very philosophy that gave it birth. Unfortunately; these
transitory periods breed uncertainty and with uncertainty comes fear. The brink between medievalism
and the Renaissance was a transitory phase marked with discoveries of Galileo, Descartes and Newton.
Further more, it fostered fear because it threatened all that was thought to be true. John Donne published
An Anatomy of the World in 1611 when Descartes turned 15 and one year after Galileo recorded the first
observations from a telescope. With astute foresight Donne predicted the societal qualms that would be
brought about by the proliferation of Descartes' and Galileo's ideologies. This is evident in the
following lines ofAn Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
And element of fire is all put out;
The sun is lost, and the' earth, and no man's wit
can well direct him where to look for it.' (lines 205-8)

Currently many progressive scholars believe that we are in a societal transition similar to the 17th-
century transition-the shift that history recorded as the evolution from medievalism to
enlightenment. "Cultural transformation of this magnitude and depth cannot be prevented"
(Capra, 1982, p. 33) Society, just like living organisms; cannot avoid change. Unfortunately,
societal transitions do not remain as open to the dynamics of change as do living entities. As
we shift from the industrial age into the information era; individuals and communities, need
to develop more encompassing fields of perception instead of fear of change and resistance to
the forces which govern nature.

In order to organize to a higher degree of adaptability, evolve if you will, communities need to
remain permeable to the opportunities that new social patterns offer while simultaneously rekindle an
understanding of values that made previous social organizations strong. Capra (1982) illuminates this
notion for altering our current perceptions:
What we need to prepare ourselves for the great transition we are about to enter, is a deep reexamination of the
main premises and values of our culture, a rejection of those conceptual models that have outlived their
usefulness; and a new recognition of some of the values discarded by previous periods in our culture. (33)
How much faith can we put into viewing the world through the lens of traditional science? Is the
empirical rational the only valid vision for the future? Can we solve community problems by examining
them problems as isolated entities? Can reality only be understood through objectivism? Can communities
flourish by retaining their tendency for social gradation? Can the quality of life be quantifiably
measured? Is the reductionist mindset a proper model for community leaders? How can diverse groups of
individuals reach consensus? How can we transcend the secular notions of conventional wisdom? The
nature of these questions... and the realties that made them relevant demonstrates that we live in very
complex times. If we hope to transform our communities we must be prepared to go beyond superficial
observation. Civic leaders need to be able to discern workable solutions to these paradoxical inquiries.
Furthermore; they must articulate their vision to unite all community members.

Many empirical and social thinkers from the 17th-century right up to this day espouse that the
objectification viewpoint. enacted though the scientific method, is the only valid way to
understand reality. In other words, they believe that truth can only be discovered through
observations. What is knowable can only be received through the five physical senses.
Unfortunately; this faith in the scientific method ignores the infinite phenomenon which
occurs beyond our senses. It also dismisses the intangible realties and higher ideals that
need to govern human communities. Plato's notion of true perception involved the realities
that happened beyond our senses; the quest for equality; justice, beauty and charity. Platonic,
Judeo-Christian; Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu and Native American ideas of authentic knowledge
were centered on ethical values. These transcending ideologies as their founders would
readily agree, embrace truer perceptions of reality. Moreover; these intangible truths; if they
don't become corrupt, have a far greater capacity to unite people than the secular notions offered
by science and politics.

Those in positions of social governance today need to determine an appropriate core value
system, one which has the ability to bring and hold society together. By relying on the
scientific method society has been brought out of the dark-ages. This objective method has been
most effective in medicine. It has replaced the myth inspired, leach-welding medieval barber
with highly skilled cardiologists and Neurologists. However, our medical knowledge has
progressed so far that society is confronted with ethical dilemmas that go far beyond our sensebased
rationalism. Genetics, Cloning and Cryogenics will have serious implications for future
generations. Should we allow science to replace God? Our leaders are going to have to
seriously consider whether or not there should be constraints placed on scientific
advancements. On the other hand, how far do we allow spiritual aspects to govern us? Prior
to the scientific revolution, the Church ruled western society. The Church's mentality feared
any scientific progress. Those who questioned the Church were often tortured and put under
house arrest. Medicine was based on superstition and more often than not, the practitioners
marred or killed rather than healed. Should we allow God to replace science? Sociologist,
Pitirim Sorokin, believes that all societies swing between scientific realms; which he calls sensate value
systems, and ideational phases; which he describes as spiritually based. According to Capra, Sorokin (1941)
theorized a third integrating phase, the idealistic, which balanced the sensate and ideational states of human

According to idealistic beliefs, true reality has both sensory and supersensory aspects which coexist in all
embracing unity. Idealistic cultural periods thus tend to attain the highest and noblest expressions of both
ideational and sensate styles, producing balance, integration, and esthetic fulfillment in art, philosophy, science
and technology. (p. 31-32) Sorokin offers an intriguing vision of the human condition. From our current viewpoint in history we can correlate his theories with the evolution of western human behavior. Sorokin plotted and
graphed the historical cycles of macro social behavior to validate his three basic patterns of
cultural conditions. Capra bases a portion of his work on Sorokin's theories.

In The Turning Point (1982), Capra illuminates the contributions that Sorokin made to the difficult practice of determining the ideological direction of humanity: In Sorokin's model the current paradigm shift and the decline of the Industrial Age are another period of maturation and decline of sensate culture.The rise of our current sensate era was preceded by the ascendancy of ideational culture during the rise of Christianity and the Middle Ages, and by the subsequent flowering of an idealistic stage during the European Renaissance. It was the slow decline of these ideational and idealistic epochs in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that gave way to the rise of a new sensate period in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an era marked by the value system of the Enlightenment, the scientific views of Descartes and Newton, and the technology of the Industrial revolution. In the twentieth century these sensate values and ideas are on the decline again, and thus in 1937, with great foresight, Sorokin predicted as the twilight of sensate culture the paradigm shift and social upheavals we are witnessing today. (32)

Whether we slip from a sense-orientated culture into a more idealistic social system has yet to be realized. If we adopt Sorokin's hypothesis we would realize that the most admirable condition for community is one that integrates the rational aspects of the sensate with the virtue-based spirituality of the ideational culture. How much truth is there in Sorokin's idealistic paradigm is open for interpretation, it does however, provide a vision that humanity should be striving for. Furthermore, a vision of this nature can inspire individuals to collectively seek a more desirable future.


Courtesy of Systemic Inc,  Citizen’s Public Safety Network & Citizen’s Bureau of Investigation Community Safety Projects | Spokane; Washington, Sandpoint & Coeur d’alene; Kootenai County, Idaho Elder Abuse Advocates & Grassroots Networks.