The 20th century — shaped, as it was, by the kind of thinking we find in the works of Peter Drucker — has made us understand that organizations are governed by purpose. Leadership is thoughtful. Organizations have a brain, and the brain, likewise, is governed by the thinking of objectives and means. Good leadership, then, means figuring things out — and making sure things come to a rationally defensible resolution. Good leadership makes the pie bigger, and then it cuts up the pie in the best possible way. Organizations wouldn’t need to exist were it not for these things.
But what if something else comes to take responsibility for giving the whole thing life?
Early on in the history of the Roman Republic, the patrician aristocracy found itself having to deal with a secession of the plebeian underclass that served its needs. In particular, the rebellion deprived these patricians of security and of a means to fight their wars.
The plebs withdraw from Rome to the Mons Sacer, across the River Anio. There, they stayed peacefully without making further threats or demands. Perhaps they were trying to figure out the next step. Or maybe the whole enterprise was slowing down under its own inertia. Either way, it put the aristocratic Senate into a panic. And in response, they sent Menenius Agrippa (himself a pleb in origin, though aligned with Patricians) to talk them into coming back.
And he was successful. He brought the plebs back into the city and ended the secession. But the act of persuasion didn’t involve any nicely-worded promises. Nor did he appeal to the glory of the Republic, to the regional dominance that was its destiny. He didn’t even speak to the security of their own families or loved ones, some of whom, still at Rome, would have remained vulnerable without the restoration of order.
Instead, he told them what Livy describes as being a primitive and rough fable.
Once upon a time, the different parts of the body revolted against the stomach, and then they all started to waste away….
Not too long after this, the Greeks tried to figure out what would be the optimal distribution of wealth among their own population. Nothing in nature, after all, seemed to place limits on personal wealth. But the concentration of too much of it in too few hands could only, in their view, lead to disorder and disaster. Not only this, but “the essence of wealth was excess,” Jean-Pierre Vernant writes, “which was also the shape taken by hybris in the world.”
The Greeks found one solution to this problem in the harmonic chords of music. As long as the distribution of wealth in society remained proportionate, the state could maintain a certain hygiene and continue to govern itself. Plato was but one author who wrote about how such harmonies could unify people of different means and abilities.
In the 21st century, we’ve all but abandoned the idea of putting restraints on the wealthier members of society. But we do still hear discussions of proportional pay inside of organizations. Sometimes there are discussions about what’s reasonable pay for executives. Should it be determined by the market? Why do American CEOs, for example, make so much money than CEOs in Japan? And what about equal pay for people of different genders? People are supposedly paid in proportion to the contribution they make to a company, but in many cases, such contributions can be hard to judge. And high salaries may come about due to any number of factors, such as a willingness to negotiate or an ability to coordinate with other workers (in unions, for example). Sometimes it’s luck. Sometimes seniority. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to make any sense at all.
In Menenius’s fable, the stomach’s role is to distribute blood throughout the body. It’s not the brain that does this. And perhaps it never did. Does the hand, after all, deserve more blood than the teeth? Why do the feet get to grow so much larger than either of them?