My wife and daughter and I recently had the great good fortune to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The occasion was the one-year sobriety celebration of a close friend. We were invited to witness her achievement. This wasn’t just a celebration; it was a regular AA meeting. There were 35 people there, many of whom we knew (this is a very small place) and all of them no longer anonymous to us (as a friend says, in a small community like this there is no AA, just A). How brave, and generous, for them to welcome us and allow us to share their meeting.
I’ve always wanted to witness first hand the workings and organizational structure of this remarkably effective and superbly networked (without – even – the need of the internet!) institution. The amazing part – it has no leaders!
In the early 1930’s, when a Vermonter named Rowland visited the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung for help with his alcoholism, a sequence of events began which led to the beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous. Today, millions of people attend AA meetings at over 100,000 locations in communities across America and around the world. It cuts across all lines: age, class, race, and gender. Everyone is welcome.
AA encourages each participant to heal themselves by staying sober one day at a time and by receiving the support of others who are engaged in the same difficult effort. Rather than leaders, it relies on the inner resources and strengths of a cooperative group. The only requirement for admission is a desire to stop drinking.
But who organizes? Who manages disruptive personalities? Who’s in charge?
There are administrative roles, but they come with no power. The group holds the power. Individual attendance implies acceptance of the “12 traditions” which comprise the strong but flexible underlying organizational structure. And that’s it. There are no rules, just this set of shared understandings that create and support an atmosphere of extraordinary healing.
It’s astonishing that it works and I know there must be important organizational lessons embedded in the AA success story. I would be curious to hear from those who have had longtime association with the process. How has it changed the way you work and do business? What has it taught you about the importance of community? How has it helped you to manage relationships in your life?
Not all organizations can be leaderless, and it is not necessarily an achievable goal (there is an important place for leadership), but perhaps there is value in thinking about how to be“leader-LESS” – that is, to bring greater democratization to all those organizations – work, home, social – that are part of the fabric of our lives.
Sharing cake and stories at 7 AM, I felt swept into a powerful community of shared interest, support, and caring. For a few moments at that early-morning before-work Vineyard meeting, we were permitted to join forces with the others and participate in their remarkable healing journey. Their pain, laughter, honesty, and ability to share remain with me. I can’t remember many names or faces, but I remember, viscerally, the experience of intense humanity embodied in that room.
When the meeting was over we walked out carrying whatever troubles we brought when we entered. But we were wiser. The others in that meeting walked out to face a day of struggle to stay sober. As one person said, “Have a nice day, unless, of course, you’ve made other plans.” And another: “The world’s record for sobriety is 24 hours.”
One day at a time. Under the guidance of the serenity prayer, which begins by asking a higher power – whatever yours might be – to “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Could there be a better lesson for everyday life, for all aspects of life, than that?
I’m grateful to our friend for exposing us to the heart and soul of such a remarkable healing organization.