Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Institutional Respect

In a New York Times op-ed piece today, columnist David Brooks warns "institutional thinking is eroding." It is being pushed aside by "individualism", where individuals are skeptical of past practice and discover their own values.

Institutions are defined as anything from a family and a school, to a profession or craft. And each comes with rules and obligations that tells us how and what we are suppose to do. They evolve over generations and are "deeply woven" into the the identities of the people who practice them. Practitioners are not defined by "what we ask of life...We are defined by what life asks of us."

The loss, Brooks observes, affects all institutions, including charities. "Lack of institutional awareness," he charges, "has bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior." As an example, Brooks points to the erosion of the "the banker's code" which has recently led to financial turmoil.

In the column, Brooks quotes former Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who spoke of his love for the institution of baseball when he was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in 2005:

"I was in awe every time I walked onto the field. That's respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponents or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never, ever your uniform. You make a great play, act like you've done it before; get a big hit, look for the third base coach and get ready to run the bases." He went on, "Respect. A lot of people say this honor validates my career, but I didn't work hard for validation. I didn't play the game right because I saw reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that's what you're suppose to do, play it right and with respect...If this validates anything it's that the guys who taught me the game...did what they were supposed to do, and I did what I was supposed to do."

Individualism, for sure, can lead to innovation and personal acclaim. But it can also be harmful when it is practiced without respect and with little regard for basic core values. I hope that a lasting benefit from the collapse of global financial markets will be the universal renunciation and repudiation those who would profit from the destruction of others. Play it right.

(Disclosure: The author of this article is a life-long Cubs fan.)

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