This weekend America celebrates Independence Day, the day she declared independence from the British crown. America’s founding fathers, of course, knew the importance of independence – that’s why they fought so hard to win it. At the same time, they knew the importance of interdependence, both the interdependence of forging alliances among the colonies and the interdependence of maintaining alliances abroad.
We would do well to learn from America’s founding fathers and to apply their lessons to organizational life. How can organizations and the people who work in them exhibit both strong independence and strong interdependence?
As I come to the end of my first year in my new role as Executive Director of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, I’m musing on independence and interdependence in Shalem as an organization. A few days ago, the board met for its final meeting of this fiscal year, so it has been an opportune time to reflect on these themes in relation to the board and staff. On the one hand, individual board members and staff members are independent of one another. It does not serve an organization well to be in the grip of “group-think.” We need differences of opinion and freedom to speak those different opinions in order to maximize the wisdom in a group and in order to learn from one another. On the other hand, individuals at Shalem are interdependent. We listen deeply to one another, and seek to discern the wisdom that arises corporately from the group.
Similarly, on the one hand, the board and staff are independent of one another. Each has clearly defined roles and responsibilities. It’s important not to have duplication of effort. It’s important to respect one another’s areas of work and not second-guess one another. At the same time, the board and staff are interdependent. The two groups listen together for wisdom and direction, and they collaborate to help make Shalem thrive.
I’m also musing on independence and interdependence in the larger world of which Shalem is a part. In October, the founders of four organizations similar to Shalem, all committed to nurturing the contemplative way of living and leading, will be meeting. Soon thereafter, the current Executive Directors of these organizations will be meeting. On the one hand, these four organizations are independent, even “competitors.” They were founded independently. Each must find its own way without copying or relying on the others. Each has its own staff and board and each has its own core values to which it must be true. On the other hand, these four organizations are interdependent. We all seek to nurture contemplative life in a world which hungers for it. We speak to some of the same audience. We long to collaborate, to listen to what is being invited from each of us and from the four of us together to meet the needs of today’s world.
Like Shalem, every organization can benefit from reflecting on the way these two modes of being operate within the workplace. Are there areas where more independence can be encouraged, allowing a greater diversity in viewpoints to shine through? Are there spaces in which a deeper interdependence between coworkers or departments can be nurtured so that their communal wisdom can better shape the organization? In what ways does the organization offer something completely unique to the world, and in what ways can it find kinship with other like-minded organizations?
In the modern western world, where independence is so highly praised, it can be easy to forget how connected we all are. Yet our abilities to think independently and to collaborate with others are equally important and should both be nurtured. This Independence Day, let’s take a lesson from America’s founding fathers and strengthen both independence and interdependence in our organizations.