The United States Environmental Protection Agency continues to struggle to find their role and purpose. As they begin thinking about the future, there are lessons to be learned.
"People have difficulties with bureaucracy. This is true for the administrator who suddenly finds himself or herself in charge of and held responsible for an instrument of purported power and control that eternally squirms and wriggles to escape the grasp. 1"
The initial response can be to clench harder, control more and/or hunker down behind the legal-rationale authority defined as "the rules of the organization." At risk is the human spirit!
Max Weber's excruciatingly detailed critique of bureaucracy identified the legitimacy of authority in any organization as charismatic, traditional and legal-rational. According to Weber, authority is viewed as legitimate when those obeying do so because the "powerful make claims that are experienced as just and proper.2" This means that the rules are perceived as legitimate and reasonable, authority rests on the grounds of tradition (what has been done in the past), and leadership is of exemplary character and can be relied on to behave in normative patterns.
An organization begins failing in any cause when any one of the three forms of legitimacy wavers. Continued threats to legitimacy, and what ensues, is a downward spiral - first toward mediocrity and then, if not mindful, eventual breakdown. Once legitimacy is gone, trust diminishes and organizational leaders find themselves struggling to ward off an ensuing and inevitable force of discontent with their initiatives. Superficial attempts to reverse poor decisions and regain morale become nothing more than feeble slaps at the surface of the multi-dimensional plume of distrust.
It is like arriving too late to settle a sandbox argument. Defensive posturing takes over as leaders reach to hold onto the remaining vestige of hope for order - tolerance. As the leader thinks: "If they don't believe what I say, and they no longer trust my decisions, at the very least will they tolerate the current condition until we get this figured out?"
Once on this slippery slope, however, the human spirit has no choice but to contract. No longer are there minor issues - everything is a big deal. This magnification results in unnecessary responses as each action is questioned and/or rejected through this new lens of reason.
Working back up the spiral requires leaders to be veracious and then courageous. By being veracious, "we begin to understand not just truthfulness about any fact that happens to fall under one's gaze, but rather as truthfulness about oneself.3" Veracity helps us to ask questions like: Am I making the best decision for others? Why do I feel this way, and why do others feel differently? Who or what will win with this action, and who or what will lose? What is truly in the best interest of the company and society? Do the rules make sense, or are they antithetical to reason and purpose? Answers to these questions should not be rule bound but, rather, human bound.
By being courageous, we create opportunities to think and act politically by anticipating and reshaping relations of power and powerlessness4. This doesn't mean we act naively or recklessly by ignoring institutional constraints. In fact, it means just the opposite. We acknowledge and embrace institutional constraints as power and political relationships that can be negotiated and reshaped to appease veracity - better known as barrier removal.
With the United States Environmental Protection Agency marginalized nearly to the point of obscurity, environmental protection is shifting from a coercive government bureaucracy to one of strategic public/private collaborations. Are these new leaders prepared, and do they know what to do with this newfound power and responsibility? After all, environmental thinking means projecting beyond the next quarter or even the next year. It means thinking about how present-day actions influence future-generation opportunities. In today's terms, it requires veracity and courage in the face of bureaucratic power.