Book Review: Matterness
Book Review: Matterness: Fearless Leadership for a Social World (Allison H. Fine, Legacy Books 2014)
As we’re reflecting on leadership at IPA this month, I picked up this little book (recommended by philanthropoid and curator of all things philanthropic Tony Macklin) and found myself intrigued. Allison Fine, a recognized guide to the social media “revolution,” lays out a simple but compelling argument: We are at a potential-filled moment in social history, when individual creativity, flexibility, and personal engagement can intersect with the collective power of organizations at the point of what she calls “matterness” —which she defines as “the shared space between people and organizations where each is heard, their unique needs are met, and a greater whole is formed.”
Much of the book is about “creating matterness.” How do we encourage people to express their needs, desires, ideas, and creative hopes? How do organizations develop a posture of openness and listening? What are the tools that social media provides us to connect the two, and how do both individuals and organizations use those tools in a more life-giving, matterness-creating way? It’s an interesting and fruitful way to draw the landscape that surrounds us, pointing toward a hopeful path forward toward greater connection and impact.
I did find one thing perplexing: for Fine, individuals are “naturally and overwhelmingly kind and generous and want to be helpful (63).” Organizations, however, are painted as largely (although not exclusively) “fear-based,” “defensive,” “entrenched.” I think that Fine makes movements toward complexifying these portraits (she talks a great deal about avoiding dichotomous thinking, for example, and does say in one place that “organizations have the same flaws and limitations as people,”); however, the overall effect is a kind of typically postmodern oversimplification of “individuals” as inherently well-meaning and authentic; and “organizations” as monolithically stuck, out of touch, and defensive. Is there some truth to this? Certainly; our cultural pendulum has swung for a reason. But when discussing “matterness,” I think it’s more helpful to acknowledge both that there are plenty of individuals who operate out of a defensive, fear-based, entrenched posture, and also, that organizations are fundamentally collectives of people.
What I liked most about Fine’s book was the way in which she laid out potential ways that leaders could help create a culture of “matterness,” a culture in which individuals have voice, flexibility, and dignity, and in which organizations intentionally cultivate openness, honesty, and responsiveness. The potential impact of this kind of mutually respectful connectedness is massive—and Fine also shares compelling examples of when “matterness” has led to incredible good (as well as when opportunities have been terribly missed).
Like it or not, the leader’s role, whether in an organization or in an informal social collective, has changed. The most effective leaders are no longer isolated in board rooms and offices steering the hierarchy, even if they are doing so with great fidelity and care. The most effective leaders are available, visible, and connected, to the rest of their organization and to their surrounding community and customers. And, Fine argues, perhaps the most important role of the leader is to create spaces of matterness, spaces in which the responsive creativity of the individual and the collective power of the organization can connect to make a difference for us all.