Two faces of evil

Workers place a tarp on a fence in front of the statue of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno before removing it, July 22, 2012 in State College, Pa.
AP Photo/John Beale
Workers prepare to remove a statue of former Pennsylvania State University football coach Joe Paterno Sunday July 22, 2012, in State College, Pa.
AP Photo/John Beale

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY This week saw examples of the two faces of evil, one personal, one institutional. And again, people are left scratching their heads about how this could happen. Until we learn to deal with the dark side, including that which lurks in all of us, these events will keep happening. And one day, an action from the dark side will have devastating consequences for the world.

Ironically, the dark side is what we need to deal with our current national tragedies: recession, lack of jobs, poverty, and failing opportunity. So rather than turn away in horror and grief, let's look with an eye toward something we might learn from what's happened. Learning will not only prevent future outbreaks of insanity, but allow us to tap the power of the dark side to deal with our problems.

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The personal example came from the suburbs of Denver, when a young man, a failed doctoral student, dyed his hair orange and allegedly shot dozens of people. The media reaction highlights how inept we are at dealing with dark side issues in all of their forms. He's "clearly insane," "a sociopath," "is obviously crazy," say some of the experts in media reports.

The second example is even more frightening: an organization designed to build character and strength, and bring pride to an educational institution, was revealed to be doing the opposite for years. The program damaged young men, and the people around them.

There are two lessons to learn from what happened. The first can deter institutional evil from happening. It's to learn how great tribes "go rogue." A great tribe (20-150 people) has several hallmarks: core values making the decisions, drawing people who are world-class into them, and working toward an aspirational vision. They are built up of three-person relationships, called triads, groups of three people where each has the back of the relationship between the other two.

The slippery slope from "great tribe" to "rogue tribe" starts with a loss of focus on core values. Non-core values, like "fame," "prestige," or "the good of the leaders" takes their place. "Money," another non-core value, created rogue tribes at Goldman Sachs (GS).

When a high-performing tribe starts to go rogue, it follows a familiar and tragic path. First, it puts itself ahead of the core values it was created to serve. Whistleblowers, critics, or naysayers become the enemy. Triadic relationships slowly erode into two-person relationships, where one person cautions another against damaging the tribe by taking bad news to the world. It's rare that these decisions are conscious -- more like forgetting core values ever existed.

Over time, a rogue tribe degenerates into a power grab, a tyrannical organization where the wishes of the leader become law. Almost always, the facts surface, and people are aghast at what has happened. But should we be? It's the predictable path of great tribes, unless they do something unusual: decide to regularly refresh their focus on core values.

One of the best statements of the week came from Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA. "We all have to remember that we can't let our love of the games get ahead of the core values, and we know that happens often," he said alluding to the recent events at Penn State University. "This is a painful, painful reminder that awful things can happen when that occurs."

In two sentences, Emmert revealed the flaw in rogue tribes, and also the cure. Staying focused on core values is like staring at a fine work of art. After a time, it's easier to look away. To keep looking requires finding new insights, new ways to see the beauty that is front of us.

Let's go back to James Holmes, the accused shooter in Aurora. We'll have to wait for the motive to come out, but here's my prediction. What surfaces will be an explanation that makes the story consistent with what we already know, rather than something that reveals the depths of the dark side in an individual. He'll likely be seen as "insane," "a loner who descended into his own fantasy world," or "a loser who couldn't find his place after failing out his academic program," as some people had it.

Here's the question we should be asking about both tragic stories: Why are people drawn to the dark side in the first place? Why are fantasies often evil? Why do people idolize villains?

I've spent the last two years studying this question, and the answers are as unsettling as they are potent. First, the dark side is a source of tremendous power that a few great leaders have effectively tapped. The list includes Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King.

Second, the dark side is blinding by nature, and wants to possess people. People who descended into its grips likely include Holmes, and many people at Penn State. When that happens, they become blind to the possession. They see the damage they are doing, but it becomes justified in the twisted logic of possession.

If the people are socially competent, they find great tribes and take them rogue. If tribes reject them, or if they reject tribes, they have no check on their dark impulses. For a normal person, getting deliveries of weapons, papering over the windows, and working on explosive devices would be enough to summon help. But the individual without a tribe has no safety net.

Third, when times are tough, we may need an injection of dark-side motivation. Next to dark-side possession, the most concerning force in America today is indifference. When companies slip and don't care, or economies fall into recession and people shrug their shoulders, or when national prominence decays, we're seeing individuals who are "pale of soul."

People who are pale of soul lack vitality, that feeling of aliveness. They become passive victims who have given up.

I'd love to see people get mad, and stay mad, about several factors. Why has the U.S. lost its standing in the world? How did America give up its place as the leader in science to Europe? Why didn't we discover the so-called God Particle? (People 100 years from now are likely to regard that finding more important than harnessing the electron.) Why is so much innovation shifting to other parts of the world? For people in companies that are falling into mediocrity, how did we lose our way?

The trap is to vilify them. According to all the evidence, Holmes shot people. Penn State leaders allowed boys to be molested. People in the Tea Party are mad at the government. People in the Occupy movement are mad at the 1 percent. 

If we want an injection of motivation that will actually solve the problem, we should be mad at us. How did we let this happen? What core values have we lost sight of? We may not have gone rogue, but we have gone mediocre, which is the silver medal in unholy Olympics.

We have been extremely lucky in the U.S. There are people who hate us and want to destroy us. Since 9/11, those who have been possessed by anger and rage in terrorist groups have also been incompetent. That won't stay the case for long. Anger is a motivator that, if sustained, creates discipline, focus, and relentless planning. That's the truly frightening part of the Aurora, Colo., shootings. Holmes, the suspected gunman, appears to have been careful, methodical, and smart. Imagine if he had been part of a tribe instead of a loner.

The history of the 20th century is the history of the dark side possessing groups and countries, taking great tribes rogue, creating plans to dominate the world, and killing millions before other countries got mad and, as Gandalf said in "Lord of the Rings," "You shall not pass!" The only thing that can stand up to dark-side possession is when people tap the power of the dark side, in anger, without possession.

The national agenda should put "dark side" as issue No 1. Let's get mad at ourselves for wasting the better part of a decade. We did this to ourselves. We've gotten fat (literally) and lazy. Our companies have become uncompetitive because we have allowed it. Our government has been deadlocked because we have stood by saying, "what can you do?" People get the government they deserve, so if you're unhappy with what's happening, look in the mirror and get angry. I'm speaking literally when it seems like we've fallen into a sugar stupor and watched, as if the news was a reality TV show.

We're two years into a new decade. What if this decade is when America finds itself: gets mad, gets fit, stands up to the demons of the world with the power that won World War II, invented flight, created Silicon Valley, built the wealthiest nation in the world, harnessed the power of the atom, and the most powerful military in history? Until we say "hell no!," we'll keep getting loners who kill our citizens, institutions that commit evil, and the tragedy of greatness turning into mediocrity.

Are you ready to say "hell no?" Please tell me about it in the comments.

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    Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.