Saul Alinsky (1909-1972) could not tell less experienced organizers more loudly or more frequently: There are no rules. Creative life is for fluid people.
Alinsky’s insistence caused cognitive dissonance in many of his novice disciples. They read his Rules for Radicals (Random House, 1971) and concluded there really are rules for public life. They memorized his adages: “The action is in the reaction,” or “Reconciliation means one side gets power and the other side gets reconciled to it,” or “Personalize the target and polarize the issue.” Each of Alinsky’s so-called rules was supported by examples from his reading of history, his contact with John L. Lewis (1880-1969) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations and his own pioneering organizing efforts.
Alinsky’s rules, properly understood, are more like manila folders (in his day) or e-folders (for today). That is, label the folder with bold marker. Then, as you read and particularly as you experience, put examples under the relevant rule or in the corresponding folder. Then use those folders to interpret additional reading and again especially additional experience. Without folders, so to speak, a body of reflection cannot develop and each new thing is just one more random fact or activity. In a sense, curious reading and creative action and deeper reflection quickly become a dynamic process—one not easily torn away from the others.
Business literature should be used in the same way. Yet many people glam onto the latest business book (or latest self-help book) and think it is a template for tomorrow’s day at the office. Unfortunately, many writers of popular how-to business books and self-help books are like their readers: There is too little sustained reflection that goes into their rules for success and the result is a hodgepodge of personal incidents that don’t contain too much wisdom. Perhaps that is why Warren Buffett, upon being asked to name his favorite business book, reached back for an oldie: Business Adventures: 12 Classic Tales by John Brooks (1920-1993). Originally a series in The New Yorker, each “tale” derives a lesson or rule from a specific company. Buffett was hardly looking for one-to-one matches from those 1960s situations. Buffett treasured the creative thinking and action—or lack thereof—in Brooks’ examples, not so much the precise situations.
Peter Drucker (1909-2005) wrote several business books that might appear to be how-to texts. They are loaded with adages and rules: “Abandon what one proposes,” or “Performance trumps conformance,” or, sounding like a Biblical commandment, “Know thy time.” Yet Drucker understood his rules to be like folders to sort and reflect on experience. Events in themselves reveal nothing, he wrote. The only method, he insisted, was one that allows someone to test their opinion against reality. His books were not from the how-to genre. In fact, his Drucker’s best books, like Management (Harper & Row, 1973), are akin to humanities texts.
Chris Matthews authored a classic on public life: Hardball: How Politics Is Played (Free Press, 1988). Each chapter title is an adage or rule derived from Matthews’ reading of history and his extensive experience around elected officials and in the media. Yet again, anyone who reads Hardball with the intention of following one or another rule in the week or month ahead will soon wash out of public life.
A subsequent column will feature some of Matthews’ rules and will consider morality in the hardball game of business, politics and community organizing. A column will also explain the process for acquiring one’s own rules for success in public.
Droel edits a print newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).