The President of Finland told Putin to “Look in the mirror.” We in the US should do the same. Please grant me your time and attention as I make the case for, and the connection between, democratic values in leadership, in organizations, and in our national politics. As Putin continues his brutal war on Ukraine it’s the right time to reflect on our own democracy and the democratic roots of OD. OD emerged from multiple sources, but the biggest influence was Kurt Lewin’s social science, itself forged by Lewin’s expereince as a Jew in Germany during the rise of Hitler, and further tested by his expereince in his eventual home, the United States. Far from welcoming, the US government erected a series of hoops for Lewin to navigate through, despite fleeing obvious persecution and holding a PhD. He was unable to secure safe passage for his mother, who died in a Nazi concentration camp.
Lewin, like his contemporary John Dewey (and Aristotle long before them) believed that “Autocracy is imposed on the individual. Democracy he has to learn (Lewin, 1939, 1997, p66).” We must each “…learn to play a role which implies, among other points, a fair share of responsibility toward the group and a sensitivity to other people’s feelings (Lewin, 1944, 1999, p289).” “Learning democracy means, first, that the person has to do something himself instead of being passively moved by forces imposed on him (Lewin, 1942, 1997, p223).” Lewin continues (in this small sample of his writing on the subject), “It is a fallacy to assume that individuals, if left alone, will form themselves naturally into democratic groups—it is much more likely that chaos or a primitive pattern of organization through autocratic dominance will result. Establishing democracy in a group implies an active education…What holds for the education of democratic followers holds true also for the education of democratic leaders. In fact, it seems to be the same process through which persons learn to play either of these roles, and it seems that both roles have to be learned if either one is to be played well (Lewin, 1944, 1999, p289).”
Where can this learning take place? In the family, in the workplace, but most importantly, in the schools. “…for educating future citizens, no talk about democratic ideals can substitute for a democratic atmosphere in the school. The character and the cultural habits of the growing citizen are not so much determined by what he says as by what he lives.” Citizens must learn to think for themselves, not simply follow rules and memorize answers, to become effective members of a democracy. We teach the most important lessons to the next generation by what we do, not by what we say. We fall far short of that standard in the United States, and we reap what we sow.
OD professionals and organizational leaders take heed. Lewin convincingly established that the same skills of leadership and followership essential to democracy also lead to high performance and morale in organizations. Are you encouraging active participation in the organization, or passivity? Are you supporting effective leadership and followership? Leaders must know how to be in charge and allow as much influence as possible from their followers. There must be freedom AND structure. Attempts to create “leaderless” organizations come from anti-authority immaturity and ironically are often imposed in an authoritarian manner (“You will run this manufacturing organization without supervisors”). As Lewin saw with clear eyes, “Few aspects are as much befogged in the minds of many as the problems of leadership and of power…power itself is an essential aspect of any and every group…(Marrow, 1969, p. 172).” In organizations and in society we need effective democratic minded leaders and followers. We won’t create that by eliminating leadership. We need to develop leaders and followers who can reason together: “To believe in reason is to believe in democracy, because it grants to the reasoning partners a status of equality. It is therefore not an accident that not until the rise of democracy at the time of the American and French Revolutions was the ‘goddess’ of reason enthroned in modern society. And again, it is not an accident that the very first act of modern Fascism in every country has been officially and vigorously to dethrone this goddess and instead to make emotions and obedience the all-ruling principles in education and life from kindergarten to death (Lewin, 1937, 1997, p67).”
One need look no further than the current war to see the systemic effects of totalitarianism versus democracy. Morale and initiative amongst the Russians is apathetic, while moral and initiative amongst the Ukrainians is passionate.
Democratic values are vital to the health of organizations and nations. Early OD and robust democracy are both built on dialogue and appreciation of each person, each role, and respect for independent (often critical and divergent) thinking. Passivity and compliance, convenient in the short run, fosters dependence in the long run.
Lewin witnessed and wrote about the post WWI collapse of democracy in Germany. The rights made possible by democracy were used by those intent to undermine it. In a nation where many citizens craved “strong” leadership, economic chaos (including inflation) and other sources of fear were easily preyed on. Scapegoating, antithetical to true democracy (and to organizations, and to OD), rose to new and horrific levels.
Lewin was clear that racism, sexism, and all forms of prejudice are indelibly anti-democratic. Any who carelessly attack reason, free speech and a free press, immigrants, ethnic groups, women, and minorities of any kind, to further their own political ambitions, are gnawing away at the fabric of democracy.
Within the OD profession careless attacks on the beginning of OD likewise gnaw away at the roots, weakening the one profession that has the science of democracy at its core.
The struggle for democracy and against authoritarianism will likely never be done. We must do what we can to protect and strengthen democracy here in the US (an effort that need not be separate from how we apply OD) and to support democracy abroad. Long live democracy! Long live OD! Long live Ukraine!
Lewin, K. (1997). Resolving Social Conflicts & Field Theory in Social Science. Washington DC. American Psychological Association.
Lewin, K. (1999). The Complete Social Scientist. Washington DC. American Psychological Association.
Marrow, A., (1969). The Practical Theorist: The Life and Work of Kurt Lewin. New York, NY. Teacher’s College Press.
 It’s the least we can do out of respect for my Ukrainian colleagues who are literally preoccupied with seeking weapons right now instead of spreading knowledge.
 I have added the year that Lewin’s articles were originally printed, along with the year of the publication listed in the bibliography from which I am quoting.