By Leonard E. Read
Man, proud man! dressed in a
little brief authority, plays such
fantastic tricks before high heaven
as make the angels weep.
Self-discipline, as distinguished from being disciplined by others-governments, labor unions, neighbors or whoever-is a necessary attainment if liberty is to prevail. Self-discipline is a requirement in every department of life-if life is to be lived at its highest-but I shall limit the following commentary to this achievement as related to responsibility and authority.
Discipline is defined as “training that develops self-control, character, or orderliness and efficiency.” These are the elements of self-discipline, as I shall use the term!
Here’s the story of how I came upon the idea that there is a necessary and proper relationship between responsibility and authority. In the early forties the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, with myself as General Manager, experienced a far greater success than like organizations in many large cities. Why did we have thousands of enthusiastic members and financial supporters while many business organizations were scrambling for existence? What were we doing that others were not? After a great deal of pondering, the answer came to mind.
The L.A. Chamber had 18 departments, each with a manager and staff; 150 people in all. In every instance, when assigning projects to the managers, I gave them not only the responsibility for the undertaking but also the authority to accomplish it. It worked like magic.!
Why this procedure? Having had little formal schooling, I was obliged to seek tutors. And from the remarkable Socrates I learned that none of us knows very much. How possibly could the business of Los Angeles County be bettered, I asked myself, if it were but a reflection of my know-nothing-ness! By assigning responsibility and the authority to go with it, the initiative of my 150 associates was tapped; their innovative potentialities bloomed; and the total know-how and energy was tremendous! All of us worked with each other, not one in total command, but a happy combination of competition and cooperation.
My predecessor—like most managers of other Chambers—told everybody on his staff what to do and how to do it-period! His do-as-I-say tactic failed to bring out the potential talents of anyone. Thus it was that I chose the working formula: Delegate responsibility and authority commensurately. This turns out to be the secret of organizational success, be it in Chambers of Commerce, trade associations, business corporations, or even preparing a dinner with your wife. If I say, “Please prepare the salad,” I give her the authority to make it her way. As in all other organizational arrangements, she may seek my counsel but the final decision is hers. It works!
Interestingly, it was some 10 years later that I heard this exact phrasing from another. He was the Vice Chairman of perhaps the world’s largest corporation, one having many divisions and locations, each with its own president and staff. Responsibility for doing a good job was delegated to each of those presidents along with the authority to accomplish the task. Did it work? One of the greatest corporate successes I have ever known!
As observed earlier, self-discipline, as distinguished from being disciplined by others, is a necessary attainment if liberty is to prevail. And self-discipline significantly relates to both responsibility and authority.
As I have written many times, self-responsibility and liberty are two parts of the same ideological coin. Neither is possible without the other. Nor is self-responsibility possible without a strict self-discipline. Refusal to turn the responsibility for self over to another or others, which is to relieve self of life’s problems, requires a discipline of the highest order. It takes intellectual toughness not to yield to this seductive temptation.
Equally destructive is allowing governments to assume the responsibility for our welfare, deciding for us what we shall learn or produce or with whom exchange or the hours we may work or prices and wages. To thus abandon self-control is a suicidal act. As Verna Hall wrote: “To the extent that an individual turns the responsibility of self over to another or allows government to take it away, to that extent is the very essence of one’s being removed.”
Next, what about self-discipline as related to authority? Is it necessary? It relates to authority no less than to responsibility. Omission of self-discipline from either one makes it ineffective in the other. It is a double-barreled necessity and unless practiced in both will result in countless disciplines over our lives by governments and other dictocrats.
When one is graced with the responsibility-authority combination—those rare stimulative twins—the chances of success are greatly increased. A person thus graced is head and shoulders above those in comparable endeavors. However, it takes an unusual self-discipline to keep success from going to one’s head. The remedy? Acquiring and keeping in mind, day-in-and-day-out, that Socratic truth: knowing next to nothing!
At this point, reflect on Shakespeare’s wonderfully phrased wisdom: “Man, proud man! dressed in a little brief authority, plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven as make the angels weep.”
Countless individuals gain the reputation of being top authorities at this or that bit of expertise-a business or labor tycoon, an economist, a novelist, a writer of communistic doctrine or whatever. They believe as many others do that no one rivals or excels them in their specializations, and perhaps no one does. What is the malady that so often follows these self-assessments? The belief that there is nothing in the Cosmos above their minds! As a consequence, many of them, as Karl Marx, become atheists their finite minds the Almighty I! Infinite Consciousness —Creation—to them is just so much religious buncombe! Man, proud man! He does, indeed, make the angels weep!
The self-discipline that will remedy such inflated self esteem? No one knows, for it is as indescribable as intuitive flashes or insights having a Source which they in their presumed omniscience have denied. From that condition, how does one regain an open mind?
An open mind to what? To the Infinite Unknown! Rarely will those self-designated authorities grasp this concept, for their egotism squelches their reason. Any attempt to deflate their egotism will result (1) in a confirmation of their headiness and (2) in a dislike of all would-be reformers. So what can we do? We can let them go their own way!
Most important, we, too, each of us, can go his own way: strive for humility; acknowledge the mystery of how Creation works its wonders, the wonderful miracle of the free and unfettered market. And we may be grateful to Shakespeare, who warned us against pride, and to Socrates who made it plain to us that the more we know the more we know we do not know.
The role of self-discipline as related to responsibility and authority is to shield us from dictocratic disciplinarians and to assure the liberty that brings peace on earth, good will toward men.