The Concepts made Simple: Concept 1

The Concepts made Simple: Concept 1

Concept 1: “The final responsibility and the ultimate authority for AA world services should always reside in the collective conscience of the Fellowship.”

Bosses in AA

There are bosses in AA. These bosses are you and me, that’s what Concept 1 says. The whole membership is, collectively, the one and only ultimate authority in AA. There are lots of examples of non-ultimate authority in AA, for example a Telephone Liaison Officer who has been given authority by the Intergroup group to run the Telephone Line, or the group Secretary who has been given authority to ensure the smooth running of the meeting. All of these authorities are allowed in AA within carefully defined scopes. There is no one person or committee in AA who has ultimate authority. Only the Fellowship as a whole can have that.

Collectively, the AA members can do anything they want to AA, because they have ultimate authority. They can re-write the Big Book, scrap the 12 Steps, change the service structure and the Traditions, fire the whole of GSO, or even give AA a new name! In all likelihood most of this would not happen, thanks to the power of the AA Tradition, our tried and tested service-structure, and the grace of God as we understand him.

This Ultimate authority is most simply represented through the fact that the way the service structure is run (e.g. publication of AA literature, GSO, Telephone Service, PICPC, Intergroup, Region, etc) is all funded by donations that individual members make to their meeting pot. If, as a whole, members become dissatisfied with how things are being done by Region, Conference, GSO or GSB, they can simply withhold donations, and then these service bodies would be forced to do what the groups said, or collapse from lack of funds. This is the ultimate insurer of democracy.

A slightly less extreme approach is through the democratic links of the AA structure. AA members come together in groups, and the groups (and therefore most AA members) are represented by GSRs. If AA members want to change anything or stop something happening in AA then the GSRs have the power to vote en masse and change everything simply by voting.

It is interesting to consider how this compares to a normal organisation. In the average large business or charity the ultimate authority resides with the Board of Directors. Certainly not with the employees. The Board can fire anybody and can set company policy and strategy no matter what anyone says (within the law of the land). And talking about the law of the land, in an average country ultimate authority lies with the government, not with the population. To understand this, consider that, once they have been voted in, the government are empowered to set taxes and laws and imprison people who do not obey them. They can even use the army against the population in times of civil unrest.

None of this is meant to be a comment on the use of ultimate authority outside of AA. Each organisation has different needs, and I’m sure Bill W would never have claimed that AA definitely had it right and that others were wrong. However this is meant to show the contrast and significance of how in AA ultimate authority lies with the membership as a whole.


Essentially, authority over something is power over something. So ultimate authority over AA, gives us ultimate power over AA. “With great power comes great responsibility.” This is the second point of Concept 1. Not only do we have ultimate authority, but also final responsibility. If AA all goes wrong then it is no-one’s fault but our own, collectively. It is not the GSB’s, or GSO’s or Conference’s or Region’s or Intergroup’s fault, it is our fault as a Fellowship collectively. The GSB performs prodigies of custodial service for AA as a whole, however they do not have final responsibility.

Comparing this to situations outside of AA again is informative. In an average company, if a worker thinks that their boss or the company directors have made a bad strategic decision, their usual reaction would be to complain to their fellow workers about the “incompetence” of their superiors. They may fatalistically say something like “this company is going to the dogs”. To be fair, one of the reasons this happens is because the employees often do not have the authority to advise on such matters.

Similarly when it comes to the government of a country. People may complain fatalistically about “those damn politicians” and so forth. The government is seen as having final responsibility for any number of ills and bad decisions. Some look on themselves as being powerless over it, and that elections as not really providing a choice: “it’s just one bad lot versus another!” One of the reasons for this is that the government has so much authority. (The purpose of this description is not to comment on that situation. It is merely to say that in AA the situation is different.)

In AA, the membership as a whole has ultimate authority, and therefore the membership can act on its final responsibility. There is no committee or government in AA which can “defend” itself against the will of AA membership. But the AA membership needs to work to fulfil its final responsibility. Our leaders are trusted servants. However each AA member must be vigilant that the Fellowship service structure continues to grow and follow the time tested principles, that the Steps and Traditions survive, that Conference and the GSB never become too powerful over the groups, that the principles of democracy are followed, and that the long-term good of the still-suffering alcoholic is put first.

This responsibility will often mean joining service committees where debate is required, speaking up when others are nervous to, studying the AA service structure literature, explaining to those who see it all as “unnecessary politics” that is this politics which ensure the survival of AA in its current form, for the still-suffering alcoholic who has not yet reached us. I cannot remain protected in my group doing only 12 step work, and let others do the Intergroup, Region and Conference work. I must become part of the final responsibility and be part of the ultimate authority which is the surest protection for AA against dissolution. I must speak out where I believe the principles of AA are not being practised in its service structure.

On the more positive side of this responsibility – taking such responsibility leads to great personal growth. It leads to an appreciation of the beauty of the AA service structure, and how the legacy of Service fits in with the legacies of Unity and Recovery. It is an opportunity to become more deeply part of a spiritual organisation whose primary purpose is to help others in immense suffering, like ourselves. Such service stimulates the intellect, the heart and the spirit. We humans act most powerfully in groups, as is shown by the idea of the AA group itself. However AA as a whole is also a group, and can act as a group through the service structure described in the 12 Concepts. To feel like a contributing part of this country-wide, and world-wide, group is a great thing indeed.


                                                                                     AK, Road to Recovery, Plymouth