Magic in the Middle

So much for the whole anonymous thing…

I am amazed by the success of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Lots of people (myself included) love to talk about the cool stuff happening inside organizations like Zappos, and Southwest Airlines, and IDEO, and for good reason.  Those companies are doing very cool things and reaping the rewards.

But for my money, A.A. is in a category of its own.

The real significance of what A.A. does can probably be lost on a “normal person,” not having direct experience with addiction; but I think that both what they do and how they do it to be amazing and beautiful.

A.A. makes the world a better place.  There are people that are sober today because of A.A…lots.  Despite the best intentions and the best efforts of parents, friends, spouses, siblings, employers, doctors, therapists, lawyers, and judges many folks simply are not able to find and maintain sobriety prior to getting actively involved in the A. A. program.  There are a lot of people who are at this very instant, better employees, parents, friends, spouses and citizens simply because they are sober. Its a pretty righteous product.

And how do they accomplish this?  Have you seen any glossy, feature profiles of their charismatic CEO?  Have you heard about their massive investments in lobbying and patents? Have you seen their Chief Marketing Officer on the conference circuit? No. You also have not seen their viral video, their celebrity spokesperson, their Superbowl ads or their new mobile app.

My last post was about hacking the social process and that is at the root of what A.A. does.  A.A. provides tools, guidance and spaces for very honest conversations between human beings.  Let me put it another way…

On any given day, I can go to a room somewhere and sit in a circle with some of my fellow alcoholics, addicts, junkies, hooligans, heretics and outlaws…and whether we know each other or not, we can speak openly and honestly about our disease and our life.  And in doing so we become whole.  We make the world a better place.  We save each others lives.

So, part of my life involves attending A.A. meetings.  In church basements…community centers…peoples homes. Nobody is in charge, and there is no agenda beyond our shared purpose. We sit in a circle and we put everything in the middle.  There is tremendous diversity and we all benefit from it.  There is empathy and vulnerability and silence and it all makes the world a better place.

Another part of my life involves going to business meetings.  In conference rooms.  Somebody is always in charge, and there is always an agenda.  There is little diversity shared, there is not a lot of honesty, and generally no vulnerability. And we often fall far short of making the world a better place.

Our ideas about control and order and management are killing us.  Bring different people together, put them in a circle and provide some real clarity on the shared purpose.  Then get out of the way.  The world will be a better place.

Be good to each other.

  1. Maureen Sharib

    This is a very brave post.

  2. Devon Shane

    Beautifully said. Thank your for making yourself vulnerable to share this with us. I really appreciate the perspective and resonate with the truths you see. I agree that business has a lot to learn from an organization like AA.
    One thing that especially strikes me is the duality found here in terms of perception of control. Many ppl join AA because of a loss of control to an addiction and are able to find balance and sobriety – accepting that loss of control is the first step to healing and being functional again. In business there is often a general false perception that we have control over things we do not and this can lead to dysfunctional action, treating people badly, and wasting energy and resources. Acceptance in terms of the complex nature of life and business and our deep lack of ‘control’ as individuals in business is necessary to develop processes that incorporate real diversity and empower employees.

  3. Simon Harvey

    Show me the way to that world Joe.
    Yes AA has a lot to offer all of us, not just addicts. Unfortunately one difference between AA and the business meetings is that the participants at AA are aware of the rules. The second A of AA.

    As you say “There is little diversity shared”, in business meetings, and one has to ask, why ? Perhaps because there is much at stake, a promotion, a bonus, or just an angry overworked boss who still thinks that leading needs to be a top down hierarchy.

    I like your thinking and you are obviously doing the right thing by getting your message out. I found it and could not agree with you more profusely. I hope others follow.

    Trust, honesty and integrity can be hard to find, but they are out there, you have proven that.

    Nice post and congrats on your continued sobriety

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