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.
In “Transition Towns”, the guidebook to community scale change in response to the pending energy transition we all need to be thinking about (and acting on), I found the most useful and enduring chapter the one in which the author takes inspiration from the recovery movement (or whatever this is called).
First, this is a community that has deep, uncompromising experience with no bullshit change. Maybe some of the hardest and most difficult change human’s confront. Hard because of the insidious power of addiction (the analog being our addiction to what cheap energy has allowed).
The most important lesson for me from their experience is that you can only meet people at the threshold of their readiness. No matter how crafty the negotiation, how persuasive the rationale, how evangelical the persuader, dramatic change requires the personal commitment and revelation of the other.
So the work is to set the table for change. Its easy to mistake the inevitable good sense of your own revelation for the imperative you imagine it must be for others. But in the end its their work.
So we do best to open the door and offer a warm greeting. Then we turn and point inside. There it is. The table is set. “Are you hungry?”
Seems like a precise parallel, Jamie. I notice that on the Transition Towns WIKI (www.transitiontowns.org) they even use the concept directly,with the “12 Steps to Transition.”
At another level, Janine Benyus, of Biomimicry fame, says, ” I think fossil fuels were discovered before our consciousness had evolved enough to know what to do with all that energy. We’ve been mesmerized by internal combustion, enthralled by fire. It’s given us almost supernatural powers, multiplying our muscle power by thousands and enabling us to move mountains.” Powerful substances give us the illusion of being able to do that; fossil fuels give us the actual ability, which is even more frightening.
The readiness lesson is strong. Once, about 30 years ago, a group of us, with the help of an alcohol counselor, did an alcohol intervention with a valued colleague of ours who was rapidly destroying himself. The intervention was successful; at the end of the day he was checked into re-hab and has never had a drink since. Some years ago I talked to him about it, and remarked that the intervention process was a very powerful tool – look what we were able to do with it! “It is,” he said, “but only in very limited circumstances – 1 in a 100 at best. You happened to catch me at the exact moment that i was hitting bottom; if you’d done it any other time it would have failed.” As you say, it was his work. We just set the table.
I think you are right about identifying AA as an important form of networking. I’m going to give serious thought this. For the moment, consider this: maybe describing it as “leader-less” or “there are no leaders” is misleading. Maybe they would be more accurately described as “leaderful.” From my observations, effective groups that are substantially democratic are full of self-empowered people–that is, leaders who can cooperate.
Right on the mark. Leaderful seems far more accurate, and descriptive, than Leaderless. Your notion of “leaders who can cooperate” is borne out for me by the experience we have had with training people in the practice of meeting facilitation. Not only do those who have this training learn to run meetings, it turns out, but they also become better meeting participants as well, because they have grasped what it takes to have a successful meeting, and have become “leaders who can cooperate.” I’ll be interested to hear more from you about this subject, Michael.
I have the book “The Transition Handbook”, by Rob Hopkins. I find no mention of the recovery movement, and I can’t locate the book you mention called “Transition Towns.” Clue me in. Thanks.
I’ve heard it said that the steps of AA are remarkably similar to the suggestions by many religions on how to effect change. These steps are the fundamental roadmap.
For me, it kickstarted a path and pattern of growth which – owing to the severity of my dependencies – removed the luxury of getting off the elevator at any given floor. The disease moves sideways and loves to relocate so at best I can only hope that by staying present I can be aware of where it wants to go, and by continuing to grow mentally, physically and spiritually I can keep it in check.
In business it has been a blessing and a curse, mostly the former. You begin to see the disease in other people and – as you know – the trades can be a very popular place for alcoholism and addiction. You recognize the patterns and develop boundaries in dealing with other alcoholics including sober ones as well. The principles of honesty and responsibility have been my greatest allies in the business arena and were instrumental in building trust and integrity. I learned these principles through the steps of AA and listening to the experience of others while at meetings.
My sponsor sent me to Al-anon after a year’s sobriety. There I learned that it’s often preferable to be happy rather than right. And I learned the importance of letting go . . .with love and compassion of course.
That same sponsor called me on my tenth anniversary and I thought, how nice he remembered, but in the conversation that followed he told me that he started using again and he hadn’t remembered. A year later he was dead. I’ve buried a lot of people in AA and it gives me gratitude for what I have. It’s the gratitude that gets me through, and I can turn a particularly rotten day around by celebrrating what I have to be grateful about.
Enough said. The neighbors dog has stopped barking, the coyotes are hiding from the rain, it’s 1:30 am, and I’m going to bed.
Glad you were able to experience a glimpse of one of the most miraculous organizations of all times. The amazing thing about AA, and you hit on it, is that you are a member if you say you are. There are no dues, fees, or rules of any kind. If you are to remain in AA, however, most folks, who want to survive, usually grab hold of the principles laid out in the 12 steps, 12 traditions and 12 concepts for world service. By doing this they are committed to putting the 36 principles above any personalities or other conflicts. There is one, and only one single purpose, and that is to carry the message to the alcoholic who still suffers, so there is no room for anything to divide us from that purpose. You ofter hear in meetings that you don’t have to like everyone, but you have to love everyone. These are the kinds of attitudes that lead to a healthy group of often very dynamic and dysfunctional people.
I have been in AA and sober for over 18 years and a worker-owner at a Northeast business for 11 plus years. The experiences in AA have only helped in my cooperative business life. I have learned the lessons of placing principles before personalities. At work, this translates into putting the business interest in front of any petty personality conflicts I may have with other co-owners.
It also helps to keep me focused on what we are doing here. I can sometimes get caught up in the mundane at work. But, when I think about the bigger picture (primary purpose), I remember that I am part of something bigger than me. I am part of a group that is helping to transform lives; customers, co-workers, and families of co-workers. Everyone touched by a worker-coop is usually empowered to believe that the a part of something good and that good can continue to happen.
The same things happen in AA. People help people to overcome their dependence on alcohol. They see their lives as being a part of something good and meaningful. They continue to do the work of AA and the cycle continues one day at a time. It’s a lot like my life at work.