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Sanctioned Subversion


When I read someone else’s blog posts about leadership or learning I end up going to definitions at some point, so let’s just cut to the chase on this one:


Sanctioned - give official permission or approval for (an action)

Subversion - the undermining of the power and authority of an established system or institution


In his most recent post, “Learning 2017,” Julian Stodd uses the phrase ‘sanctioned subversion,’ which was a bit jarring to my brain. Naturally I had to think about it, mull it over, chew on it a bit, and now write about it. The first thing that stands out is pretty obvious. Everybody sees it, right? Okay, in case there’s someone who doesn’t, I’ll spell it out. If someone is working inside an established system or institution, who the heck is going to give them official approval to undermine it? I’ll just let that sit there for a minute and focus on my favorite word of the two: ‘subversion.’


Subversion, a noun, is a really great word. The definition I listed above isn’t even the good one. Merriam-Webster’s is more specific: ‘a systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system by persons working secretly from within.’ Don't you just love that word, 'secretly?' No permission going on there. Just someone or a group of someones getting on with the task of bringing down the established system. And please, please PLEASE don't go political on me. That isn't what this is about, and if you make it about that we aren't friends. While it could be, in theory, about government or politics, if you know me at all you know it isn't in this context. Please don't drag me or my work into that arena. I don't want to go there, so don't do it. 


Subvert, a verb, is even better: ‘to overturn or overthrow from the foundation: ruin.’ People who subvert are ruiners. They get inside the foundation and shake things so hard they bring the building down. Now that’s power. That’s something I can definitely get on board with. And lest you think I’m some kind of anarchist holed up in the mountains somewhere, think again…I work in a cubicle in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, subverting in small ways every day, working toward small freedoms on the other side in my chosen field.


Now back to the two terms Julian married in his blog, and the question I asked earlier, though worded in a couple of different ways. Is it possible that someone in a position to sanction anything in an established system would ever sanction subversion in any form? Would someone firmly entrenched in upper echelons of the hierarchy of a large corporation WANT to give permission for that hierarchy to be challenged, changed, or shaken at its foundation?


There are two articles, both written in the first half of 2014, that I’d like you to read. Both are short, and both from very respected sources. I’ll link to them below. Read them, think them over, then come back and comment, blog on your own site, or…not. Just as you choose. But please, think about what you’ve read, share the articles, and start conversations with those around you about what they say. Yes, they’re both over three years old, but I think they’re still relevant, and I think they’ll help you answer the question(s) I’ve asked above. At the very least I hope they’ll spark some good conversations.


Jeffrey Pfeffer: Do Workplace Hierarchies Still Matter?


Why Hierarchy Is Outdated: The (Long Overdue) Need For Organizational Adaptability

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