Organisations Must Have People Who Are on the Edge of Inside

How do we create organisations that inspire loyalty?


As human beings, we need to be valued as individuals and we need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. If an organisation can’t validate both needs, it will crumble.

The traditional churches are bleeding members. Almost everybody hates their bank. In South Africa, the ANC is falling apart. Parastatals are falling apart. Sports clubs are even dying. More and more it seems as though we live isolated lives, without our loyalty being inspired by any larger body.

In the US, the Democratic Party almost nominated a presidential candidate who is barely a Democrat (Bernie Sanders only joined the party a few months before he launched his campaign). The Republican Party actually nominated somebody who hates their party (Trump has continuously mocked the Bushes and other party leaders).

In short, trust in our social institutions is at an all-time low, and flame-throwers and outsiders are increasingly popular.

But here’s the irony.

Institutions are absolutely vital for human flourishing.

Aristotle was completely right when he said man is a political animal. We need each other. John Donne, the priest-poet, perhaps put it best when he wrote, “No man is an island.”

This is not simply true on an emotional level, but equally on a practical plane too. No single person knows how to make even a pencil! We absolutely rely on each other for our food, water and every other material need.

We need both company, and companies.

Yet in an anti-institutional age, in which so many institutions have let people down, and in which so many of us resent or suspect any authority, creating organisations that are successful and inspire loyalty is very hard.

So how can it be done?

I’d like to suggest one principle, and I am taking it from the Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr.

He suggests that any successful group of people must have members who are at “the edge of inside”. These are the people who are not spending all their time in the inner sanctum of the group, looking out only for the group’s interests, nor are they throwing bombs from outside the group.

Such people are not tied down like normal insiders by things like loyalty tests, jargon, and a single perspective. Nor are they critics with no loyalty to the institutions, always being critical and destructive because mentally they have opted out of the institution’s core identity and business:

• You are on the edge of inside when you don’t feel duty bound to defend the status quo of your organisation, yet you still want the best for that organisation.

• You are on the edge of inside when you don’t throw rocks at your organisation, but nor do you fail to be critical or have an outsider’s perspective when necessary.

Let’s look at some examples of history.

Martin Luther King was able to reform the US because he realised that, despite the residual racism of his country, America still had some belief in the ideals expressed at its founding, ‘that all men are created equal’. He encouraged the US to be more loyal to itself whilst being arrested and oppressed by its authorities.

But he makes a strong contrast with his namesake, Martin Luther.

Luther identified some real corruption in the Catholic Church in the early 17th century. But this shattered his connection with it. He called the Church’s leader the Antichrist, and helped to set off nearly a century of unnecessary religious war in Europe.

(His compatriot, the famous Renaissance man, Erasmus, who had equally been a critic of the Church, would break with him over his violent opposition.)

Nelson Mandela realised in the 1980s that he needed to break the ANC policy of not negotiating with the enemy by agreeing to talks with PW Botha. (He would later experience a real loneliness in his own organisation as head of state, most likely as a result of his continued higher sense of loyalty.)

The Sack of Rome

How can we learn from these lessons today? Here are five basics:

1. Whatever organisation we are a part of, or leading, or trying to build, we need to foster a kind of loyalty to it that allows for constructive criticism as the very essence of that loyalty.

2. Organisations need to keep their mission at the heart of their identity as opposed to a defence of their ‘rightness’ or status.

3. To be an effective leader in today’s world, you need to be willing to experience the loneliness one can feel at the edge of inside – neither fully identifying with the ‘company men’ or the flame-throwers at the city gates.

4. A sense of irony is crucial – a kind of comic awareness that we never live up to our ideals, and that we are always falling short of our purpose and goals. Appearance never quite matches reality.

5. Hierarchy, structure, and rules are all important to any organisation. But such structures should always point to a higher reality, something beyond themselves, otherwise they just become demoralising forces.

Our society depends on strong institutions. And strong institutions, in my opinion, depend on the very organisational intelligence as described above.

If we are going to hold society together in the coming storms of conflict and inequality, we need to start living on the edge of inside.