If anyone had told me some 30 years ago that at some point in the future I would be working with people much of my awake time and that I would be enjoying leading groups of people, I imagine it would have been hard for me to believe. I was working in computer programming and feeling really glad that I had machines to work with rather than people. The journey that took me from there to here has been nothing short of extraordinary and miraculous.
I am particularly astonished that what I find most inspiring and surprising is that leadership is appealing to me, in large part, because I feel more able to be fully myself. It’s as if the position of leadership is giving me permission to be my full, powerful self. Through that experience, I also find the immense satisfaction of contributing to people’s lives, having a sense of meaning, a deep integrity about pursuing a calling, and the hope (or illusion?) that I can truly make a difference in the world on a larger scale than the individuals I work with.
Since I also work with and coach leaders, I am continually learning about leadership. Sometimes it’s through what the people I support tell me about their struggles and insights. Sometimes it’s through what other people tell me about their experiences with those same leaders. Seeing things from both ends has been so instructive in understanding why transforming the paradigm of leadership from the authority-based model to the collaborative model has been so elusive and challenging.
In addition to what I learn about leadership through working with other leaders, I also experience my own leadership as a learning lab. My ongoing research question continues to be understanding what it would take to succeed in establishing collaborative leadership practices and shifting out of the power-over paradigm. Much of the learning happens through encountering those unexpected moments in which a break occurs in the quality of trust and creative flow that I so cherish in general when I lead. This is what I want to write about today: some of those challenges which are still active and open. It’s part of my commitment to vulnerability, too: not to wait until I have it figured out and then write about it, and, instead, to share the raw elemental discoveries and questions as they are when I am still grappling with them.
It Takes Two to Tango
Just because I am committed to collaboration even when I lead, to the point of having an aversion to imposing anything on anyone (more on this below), doesn’t mean that I can single-handedly change the entire story field within which we all live. Specifically, however I do leadership, if others are habituated to a model of leadership in which they are told what to do and where there are negative consequences to saying “no,” for example, then my actions would and do get perceived through that lens.
This is not a new insight. What is new is that I am beginning to talk with people about it while it’s happening, looking for ways of subverting this dynamic. One example of this has been ongoing, and that is the way that people so often ask me if they “can” do something, without realizing that in doing so they are giving their power away to me to decide for them. I have responded playfully, I have responded seriously, and I have, at times, just ignored and accepted this as a “form of speech.” I am still not fully satisfied. Even when I challenge people, they shift from asking “can I” to saying “OK, I won’t ask, I will just do what I want,” which is the flip coin version, and still is not collaborative or dialogical. What I most long for is, indeed, dialogue in which people do ask me if something will work for me, as information for them in deciding what to do rather than as letting me be the one to make the decision. I long to live in a world where decisions are made collaboratively, about small and big things.
Another example is what happens when I invite people to break into small groups, and suggest a certain amount of time for the small groups. It’s the extremely rare exception to have a group that self-regulates and finds a way to come back within the amount of time selected. Whether consciously or not, I become the enforcer in people’s eyes. The most vivid example of this happened recently at a workshop. One group wanted a longer time to do its activity, and then, when they didn’t come back even after the extension, and I was getting ready to do a new activity with the entire group, I went to speak with them. As soon as I asked what was going on, all but one of the people got up and started walking back to the large group circle even though that one other person was still talking! Later, as we talked about it, they acknowledged that something in them responded to my question as if they were “in trouble,” as someone framed it, and it was an automatic reaction, without clearly choosing what they wanted to do.
The question I am left with is whether there is anything I can do to minimize the chances of this dynamic happening. It’s clear to me that given the depth of habit, it must be something that would decrease the chances of a lull, something that would diminish the possibility that I would be seen through the lens of “authority figure,” something that would be powerful enough to keep people remembering that they are human beings interacting with another human being.
When Protection Is Paramount
One of the key aspects of leading that I feel so privileged about is that I have free rein to love. It is still, in many contexts and situations, one of the hardest pieces of vulnerability for me, after all the years of my practice: to show, unabashedly, the soft “mushy” side of me, the spilling of love and care that are so central to who I am. Leading in the way that I do, I have no inhibition about it.
As much as it’s been a sense of free expression, it’s also been a path of stretching. Not every way that human beings show up is immediately easy for me to love. What makes it possible, more than anything, is the trust that people place in me and my intentions, which allows them, more often than not, to receive what I am offering. Because I can almost invariably find some human beauty and dignity underneath what people do, even if it’s actions I am not immediately drawn to, the flow is deeply nourishing to me. I often come back from workshops or facilitation events where I have stretched in this way with a sense of having expanded my heart, found more room for more ways of being human, increased my capacity.
All of that crumbles in a certain predictable context that has happened enough times that I know it’s an ongoing limitation of mine: when people are triggered and, for whatever reason, choose to protect themselves rather than be available for support and coaching.
As much as I am familiar with this occurrence, I still am shocked when it happens, and it takes me time to recover. I am so used to the flow of trust, to my offerings being seen as a gift, that when someone, and usually in a sudden way, appears to me to be “giving in” to the impulse to protect, I often find myself feeling quite helpless, and my ability to be in a place of simple love in that moment is somewhat diminished. The tragic aspect of this is that it is in those moments more than any others that the people in question are most hungry for love and acceptance. In fact, often enough the move to protect, away from the vulnerability I always seek to invite people into, is more often than not triggered by shame, fear of rejection, or self-judgments. Instead of giving people, in those moments, what they most need — support and acceptance to be exactly where they are — I often continue to issue the invitation to vulnerability, coaching suggestions, or anything other than just soft, tender empathy. Although my invitation is clearly motivated, within me, by deep care, the person on the other end doesn’t receive it like this.
Instead, I have heard some repeated themes of feedback I receive from people in those moments. One is a sense on their part that who they are is not accepted; that they must be some other way to satisfy me. Another is that they feel alone, left to their own devices to protect themselves, without my support, and exposed to the group. And the third is that I am powering over them, telling them what to do, without regard to what works for them.
Clearly, my efforts in those moments are seen as a command rather than an invitation. Given that I am in the position of leadership, I can, outside those moments, see why that would be. Just the other day I realized, with a sad chuckle, that even in peer relationships, without any power difference, people often are intimidated or experience criticism and judgment when I don’t have any inside me. Why did I ever believe that it would happen less in those relationships in which I am the teacher and leader? I am learning, deeply and slowly, that although people come voluntarily to my workshops because they want what I have to offer, they nonetheless bring with them everything from their lives, and the permission for me to offer what I have is conditional on its working for them, and can be withdrawn at any moment. I am saddened to think of this, and yet excited to have more clarity and understanding. Somehow, I have some hope that by articulating this, and through whatever feedback I get from people who read this, I may learn more about how to be attentive to people’s sensitivities much more so than I’ve known how in those kinds of moments. By knowing that my invitation can be received as a command, I might find ways of expressing it that make it more explicitly so, more open to a “no.” If nothing else, I want to increase within me the willingness to receive a “no” and trust that other opportunities will arise, to have more perspective that the moment is only a moment, and life continues to unfold for both this person and myself. I come back to cultivating faith as a key practice for me.
How I Want to Be Seen
The third challenge I am looking at today is the very experience of being seen as doing “power-over” when every fiber of my being is so deeply committed to transforming this paradigm, becoming conscious of the nuances of power, and collaborating with people almost beyond capacity. Imposing is so abhorrent to me, that even the theoretical point that sometimes using force is a tragically necessary step takes ongoing effort for me to digest. Something within me appears to die in the process, as if accepting force is giving up on the hope of the human project succeeding in creating that luminous possibility of making life work for everyone. So, on the most visceral personal level, it’s abhorrent to me when I am perceived this way.
I don’t lose my capacity to be present. I can most definitely hear people speak of me as doing power-over and still engage with them. Still, doing so consumes immense amounts of inner energy, and I am spent at the end. I also imagine that, despite being able to be present, I am compromised in my creativity about how to move forward together with another person when they perceive me as overpowering them.
The energy that gets consumed is simply used to keep calm the part of me that wants to “prove” that I am not doing power-over. I know enough to recognize it’s totally not what’s called for, and I can shift my attention. I haven’t yet found how to release that reaction. In the last few days, since the most recent exchange that brought this to the foreground, I am beginning to have clarity about what would help. I am sharing it here both because the challenge itself is one I believe everyone who leads would encounter sooner or later, and because the general experience of wanting to be seen for who we truly believe ourselves to be is so common, that the insights I am looking at can be applied to other areas as well.
The path forward for me, as I see it, takes two directions. One is that I know I want to stretch to accept a version of me that does power-over, whether or not that is ever the case. To whatever extent I negate that possibility in me, I diminish my freedom to choose the response that would meet the most needs, because the aversion would foreclose that possibility as horror. I want to recognize it as possibility, to open my heart to the humanity, to the needs that I would be trying to meet when doing it, to the range of emotions that would come, to me and to others, from this choice, or from not choosing it when that would be the choice I would make if I didn’t have the aversion. Stretching in this way would also increase my ability to hold empathy for more and more people, as it would allow me to see and connect with the full humanity of this choice, and then understand better others who do make that choice often, regularly, as part of daily living, instead of subtly recoiling from them even as I try to understand.
The other direction towards liberation for me is to keep my own heart open and relaxed when I am not seen in the way that I want to be seen, and to have my own sense of integrity come from within and not be so dependent on what any one person says at any given moment about me. I have this in theory, which is what allows me to choose despite the urge. I want to keep aiming to ask myself again and again the basic question: so what if I am not seen accurately? So what if I am told I am doing something that doesn’t resonate as true?
I trust that aiming in both of these directions can only make me stronger, not so preoccupied, and freer.
What I Can Do
Aside from the inner work that will increase my resilience, is there anything that I — or anyone who wants to change the paradigm of power — can do while others have not emerged fully from the habits of ceding power to leaders even when they don’t ask for it?
What I understood in continuing to engage with and explore the variety of interactions I’ve had with people over the years, is that the way that I habitually speak, without sufficient conscious awareness, leaves too many blanks for people to fill in. I now see that we bring in our habits of interpretation — assigning power-over tactics to me, in this case; other interpretations we all do when things are implicit in all kinds of other circumstances — whenever things are not explicit enough and there are blanks to fill. What this means, to me, is that when I am in a position of power, and when there is any possibility of my actions being interpreted through these lenses, I want to close the blanks, to be fully explicit. The more explicit, the less chance of being understood differently from my intention.
This is where the actual rigorous practice of Nonviolent Communication can be helpful. Although I have written and will continue to write about how much I want to naturalize the language in everyday use, I continue to admire the depth of wisdom that informs the specific practices that were formalized by Marshall Rosenberg.
For me, this means two specific practices to work on. One is that I often speak by using only observations without saying what I want about them. For example, I can say “your phone is ringing,” which can be taken as “it’s annoying me” instead of what I actually mean, which is “I know you were waiting for an important call.”
The other one, perhaps even more important, is that I sometimes make requests or ask questions without providing the “why.” I just wrote recently about the paradox of why. Asking a question, such as the one I asked of the group that was still engaged in other activities in the workshop I recently led — “What is going on?” I said at the time — without saying what is behind the question, is a recipe for people giving away their power if they have that inclination at all. It truly leaves too many blanks. If I had said, instead, “I came here because I don’t know how to proceed with the rest of the group. I thought you were going to come back after three minutes, and it’s a lot more. Are you planning to come back, or do you want me to start the new topic with the rest of the group without you?” the outcome would likely have been vastly different. It’s clearer that I am, truly, asking for information rather than indirectly criticizing them and “reminding” them that they “must” come back, as I believe some of them unconsciously took it.
I am humbled and inspired that after so many years of studying and teaching Nonviolent Communication, such basic practices are still eluding me. I am hopeful that I can learn, that others can learn, that we will find, together, a way to create a truly collaborative path forward.
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