Power

by Ross Bishop

We are changing our views about power. Power has been the dominant force in human society for thousands of years, but we are entering an age where the culture will demand a more collaborative approach to decision making. With the creation of the information culture, more people have access to information and as a result want a voice in the decision making process. That means that our leaders and organizations are going to have to operate more collaboratively and from a different set of values than they have traditionally used. Whether in government, business, school or even at home, the old ways of doing things are changing.

First of all, let’s be clear on our concepts. There is power – power over – i.e. “making you do what I want.” Parents, the military and governments use power to get obedience. Power is what we use on kids – “go to bed,” “wear this,” “be quiet.” Power is what society uses on us: “don’t speed,” “pay your taxes,” “license your dog.”

Power is not inherently bad. It is efficient, it is quick and you don’t have to deal with a lot of quibbling! In times of crisis there isn’t time to negotiate or even explain. Tasks that require instant decisions like police work, fighting fires, flying airplanes, sports, etc. don’t lend themselves to a collaborative decision making process.

Rules are created for us that theoretically serve the greater good: burglary is illegal, don’t speed, food and drugs need to be made safe, and so forth. Without regulations and laws some people would speed through school zones, not pay their taxes or dump pollutants in the rivers, to the detriment of everyone else. Without parental pressure, kids would grow up with dirty hands, never go to school and wouldn’t eat their vegetables. The military uses power because it can get soldiers to do things – like live in the cold and the mud and even kill other people – things they would never do in civilian life. 

In the ideal, those who exercise power would have the greater good at heart. But the problem with power is that it is so easily corrupted! It is essential for the collective good that those in positions of power not be corrupted by things like egomania, greed, graft, insecurity, neediness, and jealousy. And decision makers often fall into the trap of “knowing better.” And traps like that can be incredibly seductive! There is no better example of that today that than the U.S. Congress. Lord Acton was right when he wrote to Bishop Creighton in 1887 that, “. . . power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

When the police abuse their power to prey on minorities or take bribes or public officials rig elections or take payoffs, the culture begins decay to at the core. We end up with bad laws, false wars and corrupted regulations that lead in turn to public mistrust and the loss of faith, on which society is built. When industry pollutes or companies sell defective products, we are all diminished. When parents act irresponsibly, the society eventually suffers.

The opposite end of the scale from power is pure democracy, where everyone is heard, has a vote and decisions are based on consensus. Wonderful in theory, but as the ancient Greeks learned, it doesn’t work so well in practice. Where power is effective and efficient, creating consensus is messy, inefficient, time wasting, fuzzy and the mob is easily swayed by special interests. California’s history of problems with public ballot initiatives are legion, for example.

Fortunately there is a middle ground. When Japanese car makers came full force into the U.S. in the 1970’s, they brought with them management practices that put emphasis on nemawashi (consensus building) and ringi (shared decision-making). America’s traditional manufacturers were stunned by the Japanese organization’s ability to quickly and flexibly respond to challenges and changes.

What the Americans learned was that there was great power in having everyone involved or affected by a decision, buy into the process. Japanese company meetings would involve everyone affected by a decision – senior management, middle management, supervisors and workers all would participate. The result was that everyone from the CEO down to the workers on the production line would understand and accept where the organization was headed and why. This was a very different approach than the top down, military based, “Do this because I say so!” traditional management style of American firms. 

Japanese executives hadn’t abrogated their management responsibilities. Instead they built their success on the concept that every decision would spring from what, in our view, was endless discussion. Managers were judged by their ability to gain the enthusiastic support of their workers. By opening the decision making process to everyone affected, the Japanese brought concerns and resistance to the surface, dealt with uncertainties and perhaps more importantly, achieved consensus throughout the organization. When confronted by change, the whole organization simply moved as one, in unison. The Japanese refer to this as “Kaizen.”

Kaizen isn’t top down, traditional management nor is it the capitulation of power in pure democracy. It is closer to management by persuasion (not manipulation). This form of leadership creates “buy-in” by the group. You participate because you want to. It’s essence is, “our” or maybe even, “mine,” as opposed to “What some boss wants.”

So what does it take to lead from consensus? I have a unique perspective here because as a former corporate executive, I know about leading from power. And as a practicing shaman I have learned what it’s like to lead without power. When a client comes to see me, I can tell pretty much what they need to do early on. But to tell them that all at once would invariably move them into shock. (Everyone has limits on how much change they can accept at a given time.) My skill as a healer largely depends upon my ability to get my client to stretch as far as they can, but not stress them so much that they go into overwhelm and move into resistance. I think good leadership operates pretty much on the same principles.

We are all creatures of comfort, and we really don’t like making changes. So in order to change, we have be convinced that it is in our best interest to make the sacrifice asked of us. I think that is the real secret to “Kaizen.” In a business or social environment it means bringing everyone in the group into the decision making process and encouraging them to then accept the group decision. But this takes time an energy. I think this is where many Western executives, teachers and parents, feeling the pressure of time, lose patience and turn to the crutch of power.

Today’s crop of narcissistic corporate CEO’s with zero empathy and little human compassion are running smack dab into a wall of resistance from employees who desire to be included in the management decision process. It is sometimes very difficult for these high flying CEO’s to understand that employees don’t necessarily share their visions or have different ideas about how to get there. 

One thing I have learned from my therapy practice is that any degree of manipulation or dishonesty on my part will lead to disaster. If you are not convinced of the value of eating vegetables, you’re going to have a pretty hard time getting your kids to buy in. Or if you can’t convince your partner that making love will be good for him/her too, you aren’t very likely to get laid.

As just another example, consider that our educational system is based upon outmoded,17th century ideas about learning. In school I watched as future artists, poets and musicians were crushed under the burden of math, chemistry, and physics. The system simply was not configured to consider their needs. In that same vein, we all have to pay taxes, balance our checkbooks, deal with relationship issues, raise kids, buy and maintain houses and cook meals, but schools don’t teach those things. Perhaps if we rethought our approach to learning and made education more relevant to student’s real needs, kids might actually want to go to school! I am still waiting to use the algebra I learned in high school.

Leadership is art. It is not science. The goal is to bring everyone effected into the decision making process so that they will be a part of the final decision. Is that realistic? Yes, to a point. This will depend upon the willingness of the group to commit and the skill of the leader to persuade. Today we’re not very good at that kind of vision and too many of our leaders are still vested in the old concepts of ego based power. As individuals, we’re still creatures of comfort and we are not terribly receptive to change. So until we grow and develop, we’re probably going to need the firm hand of some form of parental guidance.

Perhaps kids will always need to be reminded of the value of brushing their teeth, or teenagers of the danger of using their cell phones while driving and I have my doubts about reducing the number of pitched battles fought over eating broccoli, but anything is possible.

copyright©Blue Lotus Press 2018

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