The recent NSA elections in North America was in keeping with the well-known bias towards incumbency. All previous members were re-elected to their positions with no new members entering either NSA.
Jacqueline Left Hand Bull, Chair (standing at the podium), David F. Young (Vice-Chair), Juana C. Conrad (Deputy Secretary-General), Kenneth E. Bowers (Secretary-General), Erica Toussaint, Muin Afnani, Valerie Dana (Deputy Secretary-General), Robert C. Henderson, William L.H. Roberts (Treasurer).
Last year two members of the US NSA retired, allowing for two new members to enter the institution. I’m looking for historical data for the US NSA to verify how far this trend has been in effect but today it seems that the only way for a new member to enter the NSA is for an existing member to retire. Otherwise, forget about a chance to vote in any one new. This bias towards incumbency is not difficult to explain since it is baked into the very process of Baha’i elections and is not characteristic of just the US community.
You can clearly see this pattern in Canada as well. This year, the members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada are: Deloria Bighorn, Judy Filson, Karen McKye (Secretary), Gordon Naylor, Borna Noureddin, Enayat Rawhani (Treasurer), Todd Smith ( Vice-Chair), Susanne Tamas and ?‰lizabeth Wright (Chair).
All 9 members were re-elected. In fact, the average consecutive years in office for the current Canadian NSA is 9 years. Think about that. This means that a member has been in office for an average of 9 years! Of course, since we had two retirements recently, there are also members who have only been on the institution for a short time. The relatively new member, Wright, is this year’s chairperson.
But there are also those who have been serving for much longer than the average. For example, Judy Filson and Enayat Rawhani tie for the longest duration of concurrent membership at 15 years.
There are many reasons why having zero or minimal change in membership is detrimental to the functioning of the institution and therefore the community at large. I’ll just briefly touch on a few negative consequences.
When you have the same people year after year elected to the NSA everyone gets to know everyone else very well. Being merely human, what happens is that cliques are formed and made more and more rigid after each year. Everyone’s views on different issues becomes well known to the point that even before you consult, you know exactly who will take what position and who will support whom.
As well, when the same people work with each other for a long time a natural air of casualness and collegiality develops. This informality removes the barrier that is there in a formal relationship where individuals are merely acquaintances. The consequence is that people are more and more likely to take things personally and for challenging issues to deteriorate into personality conflicts.
Finally, as a consequence of having zero or very few new members, the institution forgoes the benefit of a fresh new perspective and new mindsets. Since almost most, if not all, incumbents are re-elected, membership changes at a glacial pace. That is we have one, or at the most, two new members who join the majority who are incumbents. This majority as a consequence of multiple years of consecutive membership are already seeped in the culture that I outlined above. Quickly the new member(s) fall in line and join a clique and adopt the same paradigm as that held by the majority.
FABLE of the FIVE MONKEYS
This means that it is basically impossible to change the direction, tenor and culture of the institution as it becomes more and more hardened. Actually this reminds me of the fable of the 5 monkeys:
You begin with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hangs a banana on a string and a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, an automatic spray will soak all of the other monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result, and all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon the monkeys will try to prevent any of them from approaching the banana.
Next, unbeknownst to the monkeys, the valve to the cold water is shut off. And then, one monkey is taken out of the cage and replaced with a new one. The new monkey of course sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be beaten.
Next, another of the original five monkeys is removed and replace with a new one monkey. The newcomer goes to the stair and is attacked. The previous newcomer even takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, a third monkey is replaced, then a fourth, then finally the fifth and last.
Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of their peer. After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana.
And that is how organizational cultures are born.
On the off chance that an NSA does actually break out and try something new, they are quickly swatted down from a higher institution which has itself also fallen prey to the very same organizational illness. The clearest and most recent example is the fiasco surrounding the 2007 annual report from the US NSA.