The Iron Law of Institutions…and the Iron Law of ME: A series of FUTURE STRONG!


Leina‘ala Ahu Isa, Ph.D., Trustee, At-LargeThe Iron Law of Institutions goes like this: “The people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the Institution rather than the power of the Institution itself.” Therefore, they would rather the Institution ‘fail’ while they remain in power within the institution than for the Institution to ‘succeed’… especially if that requires them to lose power within the Institution. (Jon Schwartz, blog post 2017)

In psychology and philosophy there is a long standing debate over whether our sense of morality is innate or learned. Many psychologists argue that our brains are a blank slate, with everything imprinted by culture. Morality is all relative, and it depends on where you grow up and how you are raised. In his book on moral psychology, (The Righteous Mind, 2012), Dr. Jonathan Haidt argues that there is a growing body of evidence that morality is more than just a culturally imprinted set of feelings. He believes that our desire for approval from those around us is embedded within. And whether or not honorable behavior is really motivated by people imagining a watchful and judgmental impartial spectator, the concept gives us a powerful tool for self-improvement. Imagining an impartial spectator encourages us to step outside ourselves and view ourselves as others see us. This is a BRAVE exercise that most of us go through life avoiding or doing poorly, but you can do it and do it well!

The Iron Law of Me: Dr. Haidt says that stepping outside yourself is an opportunity for what is sometimes called mindfulness – the art of paying attention instead of drifting through life oblivious to your flaws and habits. Thus, you are up against the Iron Law of Me – your inevitable self-centeredness, which not only wants to put you first, but it wants you to pretend you are a good person even when you are not.

The impartial spectator reminds us that we are not the center of the universe. It is the voice inside our heads that reminds us that pure self-interest is grotesque and that thinking of others is honorable and noble – the voice that reminds us that if we harm others in order to benefit ourselves, we will be resented, disliked, and unloved by anyone who is looking on impartially.

I was once talking with my Ethics in Business Course students about God and morality. Does believing in God reduce your chance of committing a crime? What if you knew there was no chance of being caught? Most of my students said that the whole idea of God is that He is always watching you. However, Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations, 1776) said, “You are always watching you! Even if you’re alone with no chance of being caught, even if no one knows you’re stealing…YOU know! You step outside yourself and view your actions through the eyes of another.” Smith is saying that the modern calculus of economics that looks at Cost/Benefits alone is a flawed calculus. It is perfectly rational to tip in a restaurant that you know you will never visit again, donate anonymously to charity, give blood, and donate a kidney without being paid for it.

Remember that Impartial Spectator – a coolheaded observer unaffected by the heat of the moment – can make you not only a better person, but also a more effective teammate at work, a better friend, a more thoughtful spouse. Imagining an impartial spectator can help you turn your conversations more into a dialogue rather than a competing monologue.

Hau‘oli La Ho‘omaika‘i!

A hui hou,

Trustee Leina‘ala