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Self-Organizing Actualization

August 22, 2012

Last week I discussed the relationship between patience and certain aspects of resilience. In that post, I suggested, among other things, that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs provides a useful framework for assessing how people demonstrate resilience without particular respect to time.

As I noted, preparedness facilitates the kinds of adaptation that meet the most basic needs outlined by Maslow: physiological, safety and belonging. But I also noted that the unprepared benefit from these efforts and achieve resilience as well through the phenomena of emergent leadership and self-organizing systems. The formation of ad hoc communities facilitates adaptive response.

The same phenomena can also inhibit the transition from response to recovery and slow or even prevent recovery. As Bill Cumming expressed in response to the post, resilience raises interesting questions about the role and influence of top-down versus bottom-up leadership.

Top-down leaders rarely display patience out of fear they will be perceived as weak or ineffective leaders in a community’s time of need. By the same token, their eagerness to do something, anything, even if it might be wrong, leaves them extremely vulnerable to turning a disaster into a crisis. (The distinction here is one of moving from a situation that results in damage or disruption to one that also undermines confidence in public institutions or cultural norms.)

If leadership is an essential ingredient to creating resilient communities, then why would it matter whether that leadership comes with formal authority exercised top-down or emerges from unlikely places within the community from the bottom-up? For starters, no one can control the emergence of ad hoc communities. As a social species, it seems the spontaneous emergence of collaborative coping is hardwired into humans. As such, its inevitable emergence creates opportunities for conflict between competing conceptions of the good and the right course of action to achieve it.

A common problem encountered in homeland security and emergency management practice illustrates this. Those charged with formal authority to control the impacts of emergencies on the community must often decide whether to order the evacuation of exposed populations they consider vulnerable. I have personally experienced the antipathy of residents committed to protecting their property or livestock under imminent threat from wildfire. Now more than ever, I have to question whether my desire as a public official to protect citizens and firefighters trumps an individual’s desire to stay in the fire area, even in peril, to protect his own livestock and property.

These questions are hard enough. But the zeal to be seen as effective if not essential to a community’s response and recovery clearly encourages many emergency managers and elected officials to reject or suppress spontaneous assistance. This has devastating effects on efforts to progress from response to recovery if only because it undermines the sense of self-esteem that accompanies successful efforts by individuals and communities to meet more basic needs.

It may be easy for public officials to resign themselves to the fact they cannot make everyone happy, but those citizens whose efforts we reject experience the rebuff as an unreasonable and unwarranted personal affront. Nothing undermines the democratic much less professional legitimacy of public servants faster than their rejection of community involvement in matters of the public good.

Even if public officials can course-correct and overcome these decisions, their efforts to inhibit or marginalize emergent leadership can have one of two effects on the self-actualization of self-organizing communities and their leaders. One potential outcome is that the sense of marginalization will take root as a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Our help is not needed or valued, so we must not be valued or needed.” The second possibility, which can often be even more disruptive to the community as a whole, emerges from efforts of marginalized groups to advance their agendas in spite of opposition. “We’ll show them, nothing will stop our community from getting what we need to prosper.”

At best, such conflicts pit the interests and vision of the few against the many. At worst, it fragments the community into competing interest groups that never coalesce around a coherent much less comprehensive vision of a shared future than benefits all.

Clearly, bottom-up leadership has its place in disaster response and recovery. Leaders at the top of emergency management organizations harm their own efforts to restore normal functioning within the community when they inhibit self-organizing collaborative responses among citizens. Aligning interests by acknowledging and addressing the concerns of emergent leaders is an essential element of adaptive response and ultimately recovery itself.

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