A Movement in the context of society can be defined as a group of people working together towards a noble cause. But as Eric Hoffer puts it in his book, ‘The Temper of Our Time‘, movements have a tendency to degenerate.
“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
Why do these so-called movements degenerate and what are the causes of such movements becoming rackets & cartels? The answer to these questions as well as an understanding of how movements can be kept focussed on their objective has been a subject of great discussion. In the course of this article, I shall use my experience, my readings, and my discussions with family and dear friends like Prof Rameshwar Ture, to throw light on a few of these causes.
Discord and Dissent
The first step towards degeneration of a movement is an onset of discord between two powerful personalities of the movement. This generally happens as a result of divergent views not being addressed in a professional manner. And the primary cause for this is the lack of acknowledgment of these views. Often the party whose views diverge from the group or the leaders of the movement don’t speak up at the right time. They either keep mum or try to be subtle in voicing their displeasure. These subtle acts are often unnoticed and lead to a catastrophic rebellion. Catastrophic because the powerful dissenter often undermines the very cause of the movement in his need to assert his authority.
This is also the first sign of personal ambition and greed entering a movement. And this the first step towards the degeneration of a movement. The problematic aspect is not the rebellion but the unhealthy nature of the dissent. Expressed this way, the dissent casts aspersions on the very ideals and ethos of the movement. Such dissent is generally observed in the very formative stages of many movements, often being a result of two powerful personalities with different ideals. Often such a dissenter is a powerful outsider whose association with the movement is a result of issue-based alignment. Such dissenters usually have goals that are separate from the movement. Hence the integration or elimination of such parties from the early stage of a movement is always desirable (but seldom possible) in the early stages of movements. The organizational power such individuals offer should always be kept at arm’s length while operating movements in the early stages.
Personal Ambitions outweighing the Goals of the Movement
Movements are generally started against existing ecosystems and power structures. To be a part of a movement one always needs to acknowledge the social capital they sacrifice. To further one’s personal ambitions is never a legitimate cause of being a part of a movement. People who get associated with movements should always be secure of their position in society but that is seldom the case. Many a time, the initial spike in interest of a movement causes people with great personal ambitions to get associated with the movement. They then try to mold the goals of the movement to match their personal goals. Such individuals also tend to disrupt the thinking of others in the movement thus setting a bad culture.
The biggest guard against this is setting up of a mechanism to penalize personal ambitions while rewarding collective work. Such a culture can only be built by thought leaders of a movement. And they should invest a substantial part of their time doing this.
Improper Leader Selection
As the thought leaders of a movement start succession planning in a movement, they must identify and groom another set of thought leaders and not followers. The vision of the originators and their codes of operation must be well taught and documented before the handover by the last of the original thought leaders. This is often lacking in movements as a result of their innate lack of structure.
This sets the tone for successive deterioration in the quality of leaders selected and the grooming process of these leaders. This causes the movement to be led by a group of untrained individuals lacking an understanding of the vision of the movement. This causes further bad choices in the steering of the movement. Such untrained leaders lack focus and are often naïve in the way they steer the movement. The biggest disservice that is done to the cause by these leaders is improper communication and incomplete representation of the views of the movement. This undermines the credibility of the movement in the eyes of many.
A series of untrained leaders often leads to the appointment of a leader who is either selfish or antithetical to the causes of the movement. Such leaders are often efficient and find ways and means to appropriate the movement and turn it into an exclusive club whose membership is limited not to be committed to the cause but by commitment to the leader. This is how a movement loses its nobility and turns into a racket.
How to stop the degeneration
A constant advisory committee, a well-written vision document, and an operating manual are key to maintaining culture in a movement. None of these documents should either be long or difficult to understand. These manuals must be used by leaders of the movement to train all subsequent leaders while also giving them the flexibility to make amends to the operating manual without violating the mission.
It is also incumbent upon the members and leaders of a movement to not lose sight of the end goal while keeping themselves abreast of changes in the environment. Also, all leaders who join the movement later must understand the history of the movement and the reasons for things to be done a certain way. This way every movement can be sustained for a long time without losing its meaning.