Many years ago I was embroiled in a very complex legal battle with a landlord. A big part of the challenge for me was that both the landlord and the partner I was living with at the time had been trained as lawyers, and I was quite alienated from the language and mindset of the interactions. I was female, inexperienced in landlord disputes, and with zero knowledge of the law. My partner, in addition to being a lawyer, was also male and had won a lawsuit against a previous landlord. In strategizing how to respond, we both loved the idea of challenging the power structure inherent in these differences. In our conversation, we came to a creative conclusion that we would both gain a lot of learning and stretching if we entrusted the process to me.
And then I called a meeting to discuss our options and next steps. Right away, my partner corrected my strategy and ideas several times within the first few minutes, and I became so overwhelmed and frustrated that I gave up. To his huge credit, he didn’t accept my resignation, and pushed me to engage further, so we could learn and understand what was going on. As my sense of defeat started to melt, I learned a profound lesson about power: if I was going to be empowered and entrusted, my partner would have to be willing for things to not happen the way he thought was the only right way to do it. He could not both hold the power and give it to me at the same time. He stepped back, followed me, and soon started enjoying the process. Eventually, I led us to a successful mediated outcome.
I can now look back and have tremendous compassion for his initial reaction. He knew the law; he was used to being in charge of such events; he had clear ideas about how it would all unfold; and he was a man, and hence implicitly accustomed to having women follow rather than lead. Under such circumstances, and without conscious and deliberate choice to do otherwise, I completely understand how hugely difficult it would be to sit and watch me do what must have looked to him like a potential strategic disaster.
The Urge to Control
This past week, I conducted a teleseminar called “Why Is Collaboration Difficult?” (which was recorded, in case you want to listen). One person sent me a comment about his theory of what makes collaboration so challenging, namely what he referred to as “the attempt to control based on fear of a flawed outcome.” This is precisely what was so challenging for my then partner.
Having been in a position of less power in relation to him and subsequently finding myself in positions of power and leadership in so many places and ways, I can now see the situation from both sides. I have written before about the dilemma of having power in a piece entitled “Power and Humility.” There is no question in my mind that the willingness to risk an outcome that’s different from what we want is essential for the possibility of collaboration, despite the potential consequences. It’s not about giving up on what we want; it’s only about the willingness to consider a different outcome. That willingness is what allows us to open up to hear others, to see their point of view, to consider other possibilities, to shift at times, and to speak about what we want without insisting on it happening. All of these are fundamental building blocks of the process of collaboration.
Responding to People in Power
As much power as any of us have, true and ongoing collaboration does not depend only on our actions. I can’t imagine that any of us can sustain, indefinitely, the effort of doing all the work on our own to remove barriers to collaboration. I want to also explore the mirror obstacles that those who respond to people in power add to the mix.
I can no longer count the number of times that I have been seen through the lens of interpreting me as attempting to control others. Considering how committed I am to learning about power, to receiving feedback, to reflecting on the ways that my use of power in my small sphere of influence may adversely affect others, and to incorporating changes in my actions whenever I see possibilities for that — I find it painfully ironic.
Even so, I am thoroughly open to the possibility that perhaps much more often than I am willing to imagine I fall into the trap of accepting others’ implicit deference to me, and thus get my way even when I have no interest in imposing it; even when I am truly open to a different outcome. I am also open to the possibility of there being other ways that I exercise power inadvertently, without seeing it.
I imagine that I am not the only one who is thus seen. I particularly imagine that women in positions of leadership are especially prone to such perceptions, since our leadership and power are still so new and are often not accepted, fully, by either men or women.
And so, if many of us are seen this way, then, perhaps, there is something partly amiss in the seeing. I am worried about our collective ability to collaborate when so many people in power are seen as attempting to control, without at the same time receiving the compassion that I now have for my long-ago partner, or for myself in my own struggles about such instances, or for many others who exercise power in their sphere of influence, however large or small.
I don’t believe the saying that power corrupts. Coming into power does not create the fundamental desire to have things be our way; it only provides access to resources that make it possible to do so. In the process, extraordinary harm can be done to others, sometimes millions of others. Whatever our sphere of influence, and whatever our vision or personal goals, our power gives us access to extra resources, and thus can multiply both our benefit and our harm. There is no substitute for meticulous attention to the effects of our actions. I see it as an enormous challenge to come into power and live its attendant responsibility without creating harm.
At the same time, putting all the responsibility on the person in power makes it less likely that the learning, attention, and care will actually happen. A critical piece that is often overlooked is the “corrupting” effect of having power and being deprived of empathy, compassion, and understanding for the immense challenges that come with power and responsibility; having power and being seen as attempting to control without acknowledgment of the endemic urges for control shared by so many, with or without power; or having power and having people defer so successfully that the person in power sometimes has no way of knowing until the damage is done.
Unless we all do the work of transcending the endemic either/or paradigm, we will continue to miss out on the exhilarating possibilities to collaborate deeply, to engage with power and learn together, and to give and receive honest and caring feedback across power differences. Feedback will sometimes mean a personal conversation in which we let the people in power know the effects of their actions. Sometimes it will mean putting in place structures that set limits to the harming potential of people in power. And sometimes feedback takes the form of nonviolent resistance, when harm is done and no other way of providing feedback and preventing harm exists. Whichever form it takes, the function is critical for power to be a form of service and stewardship rather than an avenue for personal gain or unilateral visioning at the expense of others.
My dream in this area is that we provide a radically different legacy and understanding of power and collaboration to future generations than what we have received. In this legacy power can be increased and shared, those in power can be loved and supported and share their power with others without fear, those with less power can find more power to lovingly engage with those in power, and all of us can embrace the uncompromising commitment to make things work for all.