MELTDOWN IN FOG CITY
How a venerable arts organization self-destructed under the misguidance of ambition, faux leadership, and social media’s culture.
Organizations are needed solely for one reason: to accomplish something that cannot be reliably accomplished without being an organization.
Community, culture and leadership cannot survive independently in a functional and coherent business architecture of a non-profit organization.
In the following account of a long-standing organization, the story is one of a culture gone toxic, on the watch of a failed leadership, in an aspirational community disconnected from its organization’s principles.
Sources and method
The information underlying the assessment given by this article is from a variety of documented sources, which includes the organization’s own publications both public and to staff and consultants; email communications to and from the now-resigned Board of Directors; and an extensive reading of documents and ListServ conversations after June 29, 2022. It also includes the author’s own close personal observation of the Grotto as an artist mounting an exhibition there, which involved many personal conversations with the now-resigned Executive Director, members of key committees, and individual members of the subject organization… Finally, the approach to the study is informed by the author’s two decades of experience as a management consultant, and four decades of involvement in various arts institutions and organizations.
The allure of community in organizations addresses one of the most important dynamics of an organization’s cohesiveness: inclusion. In short, while some mechanisms provide inclusion as customers, community turns customers into members. The key shift is from inclusion being based on being served by the organization, to being based on the included parties serving each other in a common interest.
In a culture, the organization derives from the community’s members; the membership is not defined by the organization. In a culture, commitment to collaboration is a natural fundamental, whereas compliance to cooperation is a prescribed behavior. In the best case, principled collaboration comes from collective inspiration; in the worst case, enforced compliance comes from circumstantial authority. Cultures have a vision and a worldview; authority, instead, has tolerance and power.
“In a hierarchy, people are promoted to their level of incompetence.” — the Peter Principle
“A leader without followers is simply a guy taking a walk.” — John Maxwell
The primary purpose of an organization’s leadership is to assure that its executive influence maintains the organization’s coherence, while its empowerment of the mission serves the priorities of the organization’s membership.
This means that if the individuals in the position to lead are not qualified, the membership will abandon them, work around them, replace them, or be misled.
Lacking qualifications, those in leadership positions foster problems instead of progress. They allow the internal environment of the organization to stop promoting healthy interactions that turn membership into community. They allow competencies required for operational success to go under-supported or mismatch the scope of plans. And where needs arise that require special demonstrations of commitment, the authority vested in the position of leadership is not used to set appropriate examples for others to follow.
Contrary to those failings, a qualified leader uses and relies on communication that is transparent; behavior that is ethical; and acute perception regarding where support is needed for the best interest of the membership. The combination of transparency, ethics, and supported decisions continually demonstrates that inclusion in the organization is actively cultivated to amplify empowerment of members’ collaborative progress.
The reality is that persons unqualified for leadership may still be in charge, where their inadequacies breed conditions that instead promote division and exclusion.
In the period between 2015 and 2022, the San Francisco organization called The Writer’s Grotto repeatedly changed its formal organization (from loose collective to LLC to nonprofit) as it grew larger and larger to adjust to financial exigencies. In the process, it became unnecessarily large, distracted from its membership’s goal, imbalanced in its internal governance, and extremely vulnerable to the triple shocks of politicization, COVID’s social distancing and social media’s massive degradation of civility.
The vulnerability was, unnecessarily, aggravated by its imagination about volunteerism. In reality, the organization’s lack of recruiting managers based on professional qualifications, coupled with having no formal HR department, left it overwhelmed by the lack of capable volunteers willing to remedy or replace poor leadership. The organization was ripe for an implosion, needing only a triggering event to set off a chain-reaction of unmanaged disruption. This catalyst occurred, unexpectedly and drenched in irony, in June of 2022, an event described in our Conclusions below.
The questions facing its remaining supporters are large and existential. What organizational identity serves a purpose not already met by other existing healthy organizations? What is now both necessary and viable for building organizationally cohesive membership aligned to that? And why will a membership composed entirely of independent, ambitious occupational professionals have confidence in marrying their respective individual identities to inclusion in a failed organization? Can the revival of the organization truly be generated by its members, or instead are its prospects being administered mainly in terms of its corporate posture? Should it even be (as it was in June 2022) a non-profit, and why?
What happened before is that the Grotto’s authorities, with inadequate leadership, tried to define the membership, which ultimately and dramatically failed. Going forward, will a real community have the opportunity to define, right-size, and drive a new Grotto?
The membership of the original Grotto had risen from a handful of persons to well over a hundred during its history. Begun as a private collective of established professional writers in a “co-working” arrangement, it transitioned later into a larger and less private services provider; then again, aspirationally, into a much larger, more branded, and partnership-driven peer collective. At this stage, the organization had the potential to become a full-bore co-op. Four members formed an LLC, later adding other members to the group, but the Grotto membership was still responsible for many tasks involved in its operation. But with its largest scope of operations yet, its economies of scale continued to pose problems needing more strategic help than reliance on volunteerism. The solution pursued was to convert from an LLC to a registered non-profit.
That arc of institutional change might have gone differently if the seduction of external reputation had been less of an influence. Put perhaps too simply, the ability of the “Writers Grotto” to create conducive working conditions for professional writers was always a primary concern but also a major value proposition in marketing the organization to more writers, who would join by paying dues.
Its below-market office rentals and programmed activities might have been already enough to maintain an attractiveness, especially in the way that it resonated with, for example, memories of college campus life counterbalancing the isolation of actually producing good writing.
But that superstructure became simply a container, on its own proving inconsequential to three forces that broke down the Grotto in the larger environment: the economy, the pandemic, and social media.
Grotto leaders, both official and unofficial, grappled with adapting to those challenging circumstances but chose steps that did not bring the leaders together nor bring the members to the leaders in a way that increased the members’ investment in the organization.
Rather, in an organization entirely dependent on its ability to generate benefits of inclusion, exclusion became the key indicator of its actual operational health.
Facing daunting forces larger than the organization, the identity, the culture, and the manageability of the Grotto all fell victim to racism, sexism, and personal politics on its leaders’ watch.
Part One — Antiracism and its Malcontents
Starting out as a private literary group, the Grotto achieved important branding as standard bearers in the elite writing world. It was self-consciously neither populist nor open to all. Since this branding happened to be achieved in a racist industry, the Grotto was perceived by some as perpetuating exclusiveness.
Punctuated fiercely by the murder of George Floyd, the widespread rise of anti-racism as a defined attack on systemic discrimination created a public relations crisis in the Grotto’s world of artistic distinction, where freedom to succeed was increasingly seen as a function of white privilege.
Grotto leaders sensed the potential damage that the social movement would do reputationally to those not explicitly recognizable as anti-racist allies for justice. The Grotto then quickly adopted a posture of highly assertive anti-racism as part of its agenda, only to find that its authenticity in doing so was doubted by the small subset of people of color (POC) within its membership.
People of Color within the Grotto complained loudly of being “othered” by the Grotto’s lack of sensitivity to the distinct challenges facing them professionally, as well as those socially within the organization. Some POCs resigned pointedly; others protested on the Grotto’s online forum, yet others complained quietly among themselves. From this dissension, two or three highly influential figures arose with an organic followership of their own, staging what would become a competition with the Grotto’s formally appointed leaders for power in the organization. This later metastasized into polarization.
Part Two — The Rights of the Wronged
Creating policy to openly align the Grotto’s constituency with anti-discriminatory objectives was a necessary step in institutionalizing the organization’s posture.
By its own dictate, the policy would require showing inclusiveness immediately, by diversifying the committee responsible for drafting the policy. Meanwhile, the very task of instituting policy begins with the use of language to articulate it.
Attempts to draft statements, by racially diverse individuals, foundered immediately. The working presumption was that the perceived intelligence and advocacy (like-mindedness) of those participants would make the necessary discussions suitably productive. As part of their motivation, some participants brought an exceptional history of personal commitment to the Grotto; and some brought a pronounced reliance on their “Grotto identity” as their qualifying stake in the effort.
In this effort, however, communication was overwhelmed by a failure of trust in goodwill. Teachers were criticized, complaints of offensive behavior, once whispered, grew louder. Some participants were predisposed to be skeptical of others; some demanded political correctness. Some of the complaints seemed intractably rooted in personal grievance held over time from other conflicts and brought into the effort. Amplified sensitivities were a barrier to mutual understanding, leading to misinterpretations and an unwillingness to grant others benefit of a doubt.
This imbalance was symptomatic of society’s generally increasing weaponizing of defensive political correctness far beyond the edges of the Grotto; but within the group, it had no practical moderation, as the participants were only those who volunteered. Policy was written eventually, but only at the expense of some participants being undeservedly forced to leave the very inhospitable process and, indeed, the Grotto itself.
The demand for personal agency in resolving disputes, which had been the currency (and even the commandment) at the smaller Grotto, receded. Attempts at reconciliation went unanswered or merely foundered.
The focus on encoding social justice likewise raised awareness of how women were treated in the organization; management’s response to the gender conflicts or complications in the effort was dramatically unsupportive. Neither mediating nor correcting one conflict, the male Executive Director stepped in after the fact, both tolerating the impropriety of a key female participant and patronizing the other key female participant in the conflict. This proved to be a recurring pattern over several years.
But at the time in question here, the episode exposed two significant realities of the organization’s state of affairs — one, the social gaps among participants; and two, the true weakness of any institutional memory of good deeds to predispose confidence in each other.
In both of those realities, the well-known lesson that diplomacy stages agreement to policy was not part of some key participants’ competency, and no adequate leadership emerged to establish any other objective frame of reference as the guide. The effort to document policy papered over the fact that the membership, as grown over time, was no longer in an intrinsically cohesive culture. It invalidated the notion that the organization was running on a community basis.
Part Three — Nature abhors a vacuum
Missing or inadequate leadership can be a symptom of poor competency, a cause of misguidance, or both. But in circumstances that demand leadership, where those in charge do not answer the call, other parties may take it as a sign that the circumstances are not important, or they may grab the opportunity to take the lead.
COVID’s social distancing greatly aggravated the complexities of serving the Grotto’s constituency. But even before COVID, the extended membership of the Grotto felt the organization’s presence on a day-to-day basis primarily through internet access to each other. The Grotto had already been handling a substantial part of managing its effort to be a community by relying on a type of social media — its ListServ utility. (Slowly, Slack was also becoming a popular in-house platform, but the Grotto Listserv was historically, and remained, the group’s commons.)
Having a membership in the Grotto universally meant three things in particular: paying dues, accepting infrequent volunteer duty, and getting use of the ListServ. As with other types of social media, a user can participate just by observing, by posting information, and by interacting with other users, in a “public” fashion or selectively in particular groups, using email. As a result, the range of subjects and personalities populating the system is as numerous as the individuals having membership will allow. But what this immediately brings up is the issue of whether the communication is moderated or not, and if so, by what standards, and how.
Communication is a behavior, and group behaviors may or may not be governed by effective codes of conduct. At the Grotto, no actual moderation of conversation on the ListServ was under proactive formal management, leaving discussion of controversies there in the realm of free public speech. That is, the only actual persistent constraint on behavior in the ListServ environment was peer tolerance; a cultural characteristic, not policy.
With a large constituency increasingly treated more like customers than collaborators, the Grotto left controversies to play out on the ListServ in a Darwinian fashion, leaving strong influencers with an open path to becoming de facto leaders socially or politically — whether formally authorized by the organization or not, and whether publicly “healthy” or not. Naturally, this was a significant risk factor where discussion was potentially judgmental about individual members. The wisdom of leaving good conduct to the judgment of others of course was dependent on whether others had good judgment. In June of 2022, on the ListServ, one prominent and dedicated member fell victim to rampant criticism and even defamation, based on both misinformation and disinformation, virtually ignoring the member’s supportive history with the organization as well as her own side of the story being propagated. No attempt was made to bring this public violence under control.
Part Four — Abuse of power: diagnosing the catastrophic Kasper’s Art Show event
While the Grotto had a mission statement for several years, the internal state of the Grotto at the beginning of June 2022 was politically distracted, socially divided, managerially fragile, and functionally tentative. Its business model was failing, its governance was weak, and its operations were in recovery mode.
As a registered legal non-profit, it was accountable to external authorities in a way unlike its prior iterations, wherein it had always decided how to run itself. But at this point, its formal leadership was mainly self-serving, without a clear path nor enough experience for repairing or renovating the organization.
In that scenario, we identify the persons in charge as being those who controlled the operations affecting business, governance, and operational effectiveness. They were: the Board of Directors; a new untested Executive Director; an extremely influential member who developed the Grotto’s single most independently viable program; one staffer who ran classes; another dominant member influencer with a law degree and by far the most successful fund-raising track record in the organization; and, members who directed other Grotto programs and committees, including the Ethics Committee, which had the most obvious structural enforcement responsibility for appropriate personnel conduct (notably, in the absence of a trained HR department).
One way to summarize the overall impact of this group on the organization is to grade each of them against their most reasonable responsibility for supporting the business, judiciously applying governance, and assuring competency in execution.
Our assessment is that the existence of the conditions described above symptomatically point out the inability or unwillingness of these persons in charge to lead. Leadership may be argued to mean different things in different moments of practice; but what is far less variable is the set of fundamentals that cultivate and maintain a relationship of followers to a leader.
While this grading might be contested or not by other evaluators, any debate about the validity of the assessment would need to either verify or disprove first why the failures were probable, and then how they were allowed to occur.
Our many observations were compiled from a single catastrophic event (described in “Conclusions” below) that became the litmus test for each of those persons in charge. In that episode, we saw that one or more critical defining essentials of leadership were missing or denied at nearly every key point in the narrative of the event, in effect creating a cascade of knock-on failures that caused the organization to implode.
These leadership deficiencies, detectable in both decisions and behaviors, generally include:
· mis-use or mis-interpretation of opportunity;
· inappropriate, conflicted, or unethical motives; and
· inadequate — and inequitable — provision and distribution of means.
Specifically, the record of key moments in the subject event displays at least eight key leadership failure factors, having both individual and combined influence with toxic and disruptive consequences. Seen roughly in the order of their occurrence during the event, they are:
· Unqualified personnel
· Abdication of responsibility
· Failed communication
· Conflicts of Interest
and above all,
With that set of issues, we have to ask how it is that at each point in the event’s ongoing development, people chose to allow the failure to happen.
People make decisions based on how they believe it is beneficial to their interest; the way they define “their” interest precedes our understanding of what they see as beneficial. The organization’s interest is not necessarily different from the self-interest. However, what we can surmise just from observation here is that there was either a broadly absent idea, or a very conflicted one, of what the organization itself needed as benefit from its respective members in charge.
In the below, the summary narrative of this assessment’s subject event points out the string of key occasions at which the types of failure occurred that we have just listed.
The Grotto decided to broaden its mission-related objectives by expanding its scope to embrace more kinds of artists. The mechanism chosen was an exhibition by visual artists of work having special interest to the writers’ community. The responsibility to choose the artists and produce the event was given to the Grotto Arts Committee, but for some reason excluded the Events Committee. The Board gave responsibility for the major logistics of the event to a new inexperienced Executive Director (ED), then failed to communicate effectively with the ED. The competitively chosen artists created their show with the Arts Committee and with an intense personal volunteer effort by another Grotto member with both great experience and one of the strongest track records of advocacy for the Grotto among the membership. When distracted by illness and deadlines, the Arts Committee deferred almost entirely to the member volunteer — a white member — who stepped up to design, curate and promote the show — an explicitly anti-racist art exhibit covering both Black Lives Matter street art and a neighborhood landmark in Oakland’s changing Temescal district, the Original Kasper’s Hot Dogs. Unexpectedly, at nearly the last minute, the ED and/or the Board of Directors acquiesced to political pressure from uninvolved members elsewhere in the organization, and decided to postpone the show indefinitely, fully disregarding the subject of and investment already made in producing it. When the volunteer producer, along with the artists, forcefully protested the postponement, the show was reinstated but the ED and Board punished the producing member by entirely expelling her from the organization, without due process and without presenting evidence, based on the charge that her manner of protest — which was neither unilateral nor without many precedents from male members — violated the Grotto Code of Conduct. In the wake of the expulsion, the Board also disallowed any involvement of the organiation’s Ethics Committee, one member of which was also on the Arts Committee. Ultimately, and to date, that Board came under heavy fire from much of the organization’s membership; yet under that pressure it condoned, colluded, and continued further improper conduct by itself and others in an uncontrolled company-wide communications platform, leading to the member expulsion never being correctly reviewed, never being reversed, and lastly — against the risk of many objecting members threatening to leave the Grotto — to the entire Board and the new Executive Director resigning.
At this point, we acknowledge that part of the problem leading to the decisive breakdown of the Grotto was that there were competing and contradicting stories about what was going on and why. Taking that into consideration, we here invite all to study the multiple versions, while subjecting them all to the same evaluation criteria. Not only is this a fundamental principle of jurisprudence, but it is the default method for fairness in testing the arguments made in this paper.
The reader is invited to study detailed evidence wherever it is claimed by participants in the event to be obtainable.
Finally, the purpose of this recounting is to be cautionary.
We believe that the following eight points will be drawn directly from any competent examination of available evidence, significant to any preparation of future leadership taking both accountability and responsibility for the Community culture of the Grotto or indeed of any organization:
1. Without an intrinsically meaningful value system, a community cannot develop from a public
2. Promotion of inclusion, to be credible, must be accompanied by elimination of exclusion
3. Policy must be enforceable by the community’s consensus
4. Without integrity, the power of authority is dangerous
5. Leadership must create the environment that enables adherence to principles
6. With leadership, denial of responsibility does not remove accountability to others
7. Organizations can appoint leaders, per competency; communities must develop leaders, per authenticity
8. Being in charge is not the same as leadership
- Malcolm Ryder, Archestra Research, November 2022