Saturday, November 6, 2010

Power Outage

I'm at NASCO Institute in Ann Arbor this weekend—it's the annual conference for the North American Students of Cooperation, and draws about 300 people living in student co-ops from all over the US and Canada. It's the single greatest opportunity to work with the next generation of people excited by their first taste of cooperative living (the kids who join houses principally to enjoy cheap rent don't come to this event). I've been on the faculty since 1997 and it's a bright spot on my calendar.

This morning I'm doing a workshop on Power Dynamics and Leadership, and the main point I try to convey is that there are always power dynamics (by which I mean power imbalances and the issues around people's discomfort with how that imbalance is perceived) and the essential thing is that you have to find a way to talk about it. You have to have a way to "out it" as an issue.

In many groups, power is a taboo topic, because its so volatile that the group cannot contain it. One of the challenges peculiar to this topic is that it almost always involves criticism of leaders (the people who hold and use power) and it is often the leaders who are looked to for safeguarding the process by which issues are examined. Checkmate!

I define power as the ability to get others to do something, or to agree to something. While power is neither inherently bad nor good, it's useful, at least in a cooperative setting, to distinguish between "power over" and "power with." In cooperative groups, you want power to be exercised in such ways that the whole group benefits (power with). Conversely, you do not want power to be used in ways where an individual or subgroup benefits at the expense of others (power over).

One of the key points of my workshop is that it is rather common for a leader to use power in such a way that they think they have acted in a more "power with" manner than others in the group perceive them to have acted. When this gap in perception arises, can you talk about it? If you can't (because you don't know how to articulate it, because you're afraid to try, because the other person doesn't want to hear it), it inevitably leads to an erosion of trust in the leadership, and it doesn't encourage others to step up (because they want no part of being treated that way themselves).

I don't believe we have enough good models for healthy cooperative leadership, and we keep burning out the folks who are brave enough to give it a try. There is a tendency to expect leaders to be available for the full range of responsibilities, yet they receive few or no perks in compensation. Mostly, they just get the opportunity to serve.

What Can Be Done to Develop Cooperative Leadership?
I have three ideas about that:

1. We need to be able to talk cleanly about power. In order to be effective, leaders need to be able to wield power. That means there needs to be a clear understanding about what uses of power work well and which do not. It also means that groups need to be to surface tensions around the way power is used. When the air doesn't get cleared, it gets foul.

2. We need to explicitly lay out the qualities wanted in our leaders. There are ways we want cooperative leaders to have the same qualities as corporate leaders (administrative competence, ability to act decisively, good communication skills); and there are way in which we emphatically want them to act differently (good at building team morale, consistently credits staff accomplishments, ability to understand and work constructively with team energy). We've got to do better than just tapping people to take the lead and hoping for the best. We need to take the time to define what qualities we want, so leaders have a realistic idea about what standards they will be measured by.

3. We need to be better at appreciating people who use power well. Leaders often hold their positions because they understand better than others what the group needs and have the courage and skill to focus energy in the right places in a timely way. They often lead the cheers in appreciating the work of others. Who then, will be available to focus laudatory attention on the accomplishments of the leaders?

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