The Iron Law of Oligarchy: A Cautionary Tale for RCOs



In 1911, sociologist Robert Michels, set forth his Iron law of oligarchy, describing the tendency of all organizations, regardless of their democratic intentions, to move toward control of the organization by a small elite. Since then, others have pointed out exceptions to Michels' principle, while others offered continued cautions on this tendency toward oligarchy and its potentially disastrous consequences for nations, organizations, and the health of individuals.  

Michels suggested several forces that propelled organizations towards oligarchy this movement towards hierarchy and control of the organization by a charismatic leader or small skilled elite. Prominent among these forces were the need for division of labor to achieve critical organization tasks; the specialization and professionalization of critical functions; rigid stratification of organizations into executives, managers, and workers; the progressive isolation of elite members from workers; and the parallel isolation of the organization from its operating environment.

In my first book, I described the tendency of addiction-related organizations to evolve into closed incestuous systems. Such closed systems either self-correct or drift toward authoritarian leadership, internal scapegoating of organization members, organizational schisms, breaches of ethical and legal conduct, the fall of the leader, and the potential implosion of the organization. The history of addiction treatment and recovery is replete with such tales, from the collapse of the Washingtonians and other early recovery mutual aid organizations in the eighteen century, the near-death experiences of A.A. and N.A. in the mid-twentieth century, to the complete implosion of Synanon, Parkside, and numerous other addiction-related organizations in the decades that followed.

My focus today is on similar risks faced by recovery community organizations (RCOs) and the lessons from history that could help RCOs become the exception to Michels' Iron Law of Oligarchy. Here are a few such lessons.

Mission clarity and fidelity are the pillars of RCO viability and sustainability. We must at all costs protect the mission of supporting individuals, families, and communities through the stages of long-term addiction recovery. We must avoid diversion of attention and resources to any cause, no matter how noble, not linked to the recovery mission.

Values matter. Codification of values to guide organizational decision-making is a powerful antidote to mission diversion. RCO values should reflect values shared by diverse recovery communities, e.g., honesty, humility, tolerance/respect, gratitude, forgiveness, service, etc. Such values check the corrosive preoccupations with money, property, power, and personal/organizational prestige.

Extoll critical thinking and emulate the proposition that internal and external critics can bebenefactors. Such critics, no matter how ill-informed or maliciously motivated, may reveal areas of organizational vulnerability, spark calls for self-inventory, and open potential strategies for mission enhancement.

Trust but verify: build internal and external systems of accountability to assure mission and values fidelity. Involve organizational members, service constituents, and community representatives in the periodic evaluation of fidelity to RCO mission and values. Mechanisms of accountability and grievance are essential in avoiding potential abuses of power at all levels of the organization. 

Flatten the organization structure to the greatest extent possible. Avoid centralization of power within a single person or leadership team. Leadership development and leadership rotation throughout the organization is key to intergenerational success of the organization. Train everyone in principles of servant leadership. Charismatic centralized leadership can start an RCO, but that leadership style constitutes the greatest single threat to long-term RCO sustainability and the greatest potential for abuses of power. Develop a model of democratic decision-making that best fits the organization and its cultural context. Demystify and de-professionalize knowledge and skills by educating and training all members of the organization, regardless of role or title.

Maintain healthy transactions between organizational members and other community institutions to avoid the pitfalls of organizational and leadership isolation. Helping people in recovery to participate in the life of their communities requires forging recovery space in those communities and serving as guides to community re-entry. We can only achieve that if the RCO maintains a highly permeable boundary between itself and the communities it serves. We cannot cloister ourselves within a closed organizational system while boldly challenging those we serve to re-enter the life of communities from which we are estranged. RCOs must sustain deep community involvement to both serve the community and avoid colonization (hijacking of mission and resources) by powerful forces within the RCO's operating environment.   

A powerful indicator of RCO health is the breadth and diversity of its volunteer workforce. Beyond the services they provide, such volunteers help keep the organization recovery-focused and serve as a check on the professionalization and commercialization of recovery advocacy and support services.

RCOs, like all organizations, must contend with the risk of oligarchy and its consequences. Democratic organizational life can be messy and time-consuming, but it also results in organizations of greater long-term effectiveness and sustainability. What's more, it provides a framework through which once wounded individuals can acquire the competence and confidence to serve as healers and leaders within their communities. That outcome is worth a little messiness and attention to process.

What would you add to the above reflections?