Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Power Gradients

One of the most fascinating topics for me about cooperative group dynamics is Power and Leadership. We just don't have very good models for how to do this well, and the need is everywhere.

I'm defining "power" as the ability to get others to do something, or to agree to something. Leaders use power to get things things done, and power is neither inherently good or evil—though there is considerable opinion about whether its application is healthy or unhealthy. When leaders are viewed as using power "with"—for the benefit of the whole group—there's no problem; when they're seen as using power "over"—for the benefit of themselves or for a subgroup at the expense of others—there's hell to pay.

In recent email correspondence with author and friend Vicki Robin (of Your Money or Your Life fame) she shared the following reflections about nuances of power:

I'm thinking about the difference between power (ability to influence outcome), charisma (inherent energy that influences), and radiance (energy that fills and inspires others to their own ends). These three seem to come from different places in my psyche. I aspire to radiance and am most at peace when the energy flowing through me simply nourishes others (who are then happy around me, increasing my own happiness).

This was a stimulating conversation, as I had not focused previously on how "charisma" and "radiance" figured into my thinking. Let me take them one at a time.

My feeling about charisma is that involves an ability to influence based on personal attraction and conduct that's independent of thinking. That is, the charismatic person can sway opinion based on force of personality, independent from strength of argument. Clearly, this can be a dangerous thing—both because it could lead you to conclusions you might otherwise reject, and because it can lead the charismatic person to misunderstand the source of their power (that is, they might belief they're a better thinker than they are).

And it's more complicated that that. In most situations a person's charisma is not uniformly strong in a group, and there will tend to be a knee-jerk negative response by those in the group who are not drawn to that person's magnetism, serving as a counter weight to the positive response of those who find the person charismatic. This gets messy in a hurry. Now, in addition to sorting out what to do about an issue based on the thinking in the room, you must also navigate the extent to which charisma may be distorting (in either direction) how that information is being viewed.

For all of that, charisma can be a wonderful thing in carrying a group through a morass, galvanizing a group to action when it might otherwise be in peril of losing its will and its way in the Slough of Despond. (I have a friend who styles such moments "Captain Kirk speeches," after the unflappable commander of the starship Enterprise, and his uncanny ability to rise to the occasion when the odds are as long as the tentacles of the evil aliens.)

I'm thinking Joan of Arc here. While i'm less sure of my fotting on this, I suppose that this too depends on how the audience perceives it. If it comes across as authentic and on target, I imagine it's irresistible and people love it. If however, you experience the radiant person with their head up their ass, I reckon you'd feel differently about the influence of their "sunshine."

But maybe Vicki was talking more about a person being fully in their own power and totally unthreatened by disagreement. While the impact of being in this state probably still depends on the audience's sense of relevance to the situation, I recognize that this may not be as problematic as my prior paragraph indicated. I think an important question for me would be whether I perceived the radiant person to be capable of receiving well while being in a state of emanation. If I felt that the person was all give and no take it would likely piss me off (who appointed them God?)

With all of this, the important thing is that you have to track not just intent (of the powerful, charismatic, or radiant person); you have to track perceptions to understand impact and the extent to which the exercise of power will be seen as "with" or "over."

For my money, one of the key tests of a group's maturity is its ability to talk openly about power, and whether it can discuss with compassion and depth the perception of some members that others are using power less cooperatively than they believe they are.

Vicki continued:
I know I am charismatic when I speak and write but consider it simply a gift I've been given, a "feature" of my persona. I use that best when I am serving a cause. Then there is power, which is the exercise of my will for protection or projection. It's more the animal level. Canny. Neutral in that it can be used for more or less selfish ends but always in service to my needs. I am willing to exercise power and that's where I sometimes get in trouble with groups.
Communitarians, "green meme-ers", don't like to see themselves as carrying or exerting more power. That's where the yellow in spiral dynamics helps me, to see that wise use of power is to empower the whole, which I hope is where I land most of the time."

I think you can always get into trouble when exercising power, because you can always be perceived to be acting "over" instead of "with." While your intent may be less than pure (and that's definitely worth looking at), my main point here is that leaders are never in control of how their intent will be perceived no matter how pure it is, and they must act with the understanding that at least some of the time they will take hits about how they are abusing their power. You can rail all you want about the unfairness of that, but Harry Truman had it right: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

We desperately need leaders, because we're all not of equal ability, equal motivation, and equal availability for the hard work at hand. We need to be choosing our best people to lead, while at the same time working hard to increase the opportunity for everyone to enhance their leadership qualities, to create an ever-widening pool from which to select tomorrow's leaders.

I believe Vicki's right to be striving to use power as much as possible for the benefit of the whole. Though a good heart doesn't guarantee that you'll always see things accurately—or that you'll always be seen accurately—it's certainly a good start. In addition to creating a solid understanding of what power "with" looks like, and an appreciation among cooperative groups of the need for having leaders who use power from that model, we need to find better ways to talk about power and what's hard for us about it.

Lacking that kind of dialog and compassion we'll simply continue the dynamic of the Left being divided among itself (and therefore substantially ineffective as a force for social change). Surely we can do better than the pathetic cultivation of leadership bashing as an art form—where we lop of the heads of all flowers who brazenly rise above the field in their eagerness for the light.

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