The Bible (and the Torah) recounts the story of “the scapegoat” as one of a pair of kid goats. One goat was sacrificed, while the “scapegoat” is cast into the desert to carry away the sins of the community:
Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. — Leviticus 16:21–22
Our recent guest on The Innovation Show, Luke Burgis tells us in his book, “Wanting“, that the ancient Greeks had their own version of a scapegoating ritual—but they sacrificed humans, not animals. In early Greek history, during times of plague or famine, when societies feared for their survival, each Greek town would elect an inhabitant on the edges of society, someone who was different, a slave or a criminal. This poor person was known as the pharmakós. The word pharmakós is the root of the English word “pharmacy.” To the Greeks, it meant something that is both a poison and a remedy—like a vaccine, a necessary poison. While the pharmakós was initially seen as a threat to the community, it was through his death, he came to be seen as the remedy for the chaos. In short, in times of chaos, like a famine, invasion or plague, the pharmakós brought order to the chaos.
Thank the Gods we don’t do this anymore, right?!?
Changemakers as Scapegoats and Pharmakós
(Image by HeliacWolf: irina.artstation.com)
“The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.” –Dwight D. Eisenhower
While it is a relief to think that we don’t (physically) sacrifice those on the edges of society anymore, the traces of the mechanic are rampant. Politicians seek scapegoats for societal problems (“Let’s build a wall”). Colleagues ostracise new comers because they introduce new ideas (“Not invented here”). And organisations seek a fall guy or girl to blame for poor results.
The scapegoat can sometimes be the CEO who takes the fall when the organisation resists the very change that would make it relevant for a new age. I see this in my practice all the time. A newly minted CEO, eager to transform a flailing organisation gets crushed by the corporate immune system: an immune system that could benefit from their new blood.
Organisations are experiencing more disruption and more chaos than ever before. The latest Corporate Longevity report by friends of the Innovation Show, Innosight, shows the 30 to 35-year average tenure of S&P 500 companies in the late 1970s is forecast to shrink to 15-20 years this decade. Sounds like corporate chaos to me! And what happens when we experience chaos? We need to find order. Cue, the scapegoat mechanic.
When the CEO is not “identified” as the pharmakós, often it is someone else. Perhaps it is that new product manager who resists “the way is has always have been done around here”? Perhaps it is the chief digital officer who demands an organisational strategy before she completes her digital strategy? Or perhaps it is the head of Innovation who is getting some tractions with their change initiatives. Hmmm, those in managerial positions were ok when the changemaker succeeded with some small incremental changes, with some “Innovation Theatre”, but now they have moved on a level and are seeking transformative change. “Hell no, not on my watch, if things change, then maybe I will lose my status, heck, I may even lose my corner office! Something must be done, if not me, then who?”
Let’s recall that a scapegoat often unites a group. Thus the corporate antibodies work together to frame the menacing microbe (changemaker) as the pharmakós. They stage a stretch assignment complete with their full support and sealed with the promise of a budget to bring it home. Alas, suddenly, due to unforeseen circumstances, they dramatically shorten the runway just when the project is about to take off. Uh oh, the pharmakós has walked into an ambush. “I am so sorry [Insert name here], you didn’t make the progress we had expected of you, we will have to let you go.”
After the corporate antibodies eliminate “the threat” they enjoy the temporary illusion of peace once again. Status quo is restored while the feeling of belonging to a group is reinforced. Now they feel at least they have done something, for something had to be done. But, as the great coach John Wooden once said, “We must never mistake activity for achievement.”
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