(PS X PL) = Fundamental Elements of Leading
John Watters, Guest Contributor
These symbols may be unfamiliar and yet I invite you to consider that, acknowledged or unacknowledged, they are at play in every situation in your life - work, family and community.
PS: P is for Personal and S is for Systemic
The discussion about personal leadership and systemic leadership is a bit like the early 20thCentury discussion of waves and particles in physics. Waves and particles were believed to be separate; now they are known to be fundamentally inter-related. The same is true for the personal and systemic, often seen as separate, they are in fact fundamentally inter-related. For example, it is unhelpful to talk about self or team (personal) leadership without thinking about the impact of the wider (systemic) context and its power to shape individual and team behaviour, what Meg Wheatley calls downward causation. Individual and team (personal) action is much more likely to catalyse wider (systems) change when there is awareness of the patterns and dynamics of the larger whole.
PL: P Is for Power and L is for Love
Power is the drive of all living systems, including human systems, to perpetuate themselves; to survive, develop and thrive with their environment. Love is the drive in human systems to unify that which is separated.
Seeing, understanding and learning the discipline of how to work with these elemental forces as they play out within individuals, groups and organisations is the core curriculum of life and leadership. Martin Luther King Jr named the challenge: “One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites…What is needed is a realisation that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anaemic.”
Though this quote is more than fifty years old we are only just beginning to explore this territory in terms of leadership. The questions we ask leaders about power and privilege are somewhat more developed and more familiar than those we ask about love, for example:
- How aware are you of the different kinds of power you hold (e.g. positional, psychological logistical, expert, relational, your social rank – ethnicity, class, gender, physical ability...)?
- To what extent do you own or disown the power you hold?
In terms of love, one of my health clients has as their purpose statement ‘bringing more care to every moment’. Interestingly this definition applies to every moment, and beautifully and simply encompasses both internal and external relationships. Language matters: how we express what love means will need to vary by setting. Looking at your organisation (family or community) through the lens of power and love to consider the interplay of power and love can be illuminating. And yet our experience of power can be mainly of ‘power over’, and rather less of ‘power to’ or ‘power with’; in fact many people may be surprised these distinctions in definitions of power exist for their lack of visible presence in our world. If you want to strengthen a human system, it is helpful to ask yourself what is the balance of power and love? How robustly or intensively are these forces expressed? Is power expressed strongly and love anaemically or vice versa? What is the quality of power and love? What words would you use to describe the way these forces are expressed? When people experience power in its healthy form they often use words such as: strong, clear, empowering, clarifying, energising, focusing illuminating. When love is experienced in its healthy form people often use words such as: including, warm, friendly, patient, responding, connecting, caring, friendly, and extending, to describe the experience. What is missing or absent in your system? Can you be a force (a stand) for bringing the neglected element forward into the life of the system?
How we do this in practice in the messy complexity of everyday organisational and societal life is no small task. As someone who leans towards theory I am grateful to the challenge from spiritual writer Richard Rohr who reminds us that “we do not think our way into new ways of living, rather we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” As human beings we often learn most from struggle and suffering, not that we need to (or want to) invite these experiences, life provides them in abundance. As regular readers of the Seeing Systems Blog know, Barry Oshry’s work has as a central motif, the idea of partnership – “a relationship in which we are jointly committed to the success of whatever the process, project or endeavour we are in”.
Over the last two years I’ve had to ask myself in the face of major challenges and life changes what it will take to sustain and renew the most significant partnership in my life, my marriage of twenty plus years to my wife Jane. Driven by the basic need for our relationship to survive, something to which I realised I was still committed, I had to dig much deeper personally drawing on resources I didn’t realise I had as well as seek wise outside support for both of us. From the vantage point of having coming through these intense last 30 months it’s only now that I can see what I’ve learnt. Amidst the turbulence, clarity emerges only periodically. Moving forward is more like falteringly taking a next step than any smooth trajectory, sometimes that step was made alone and sometimes together, and emotionally this often felt like walking on an unknown, possibly treacherous road in the dark with your eyes closed.
I share the headlines of this experience in order to draw attention to what I think are universal questions that we all need to wrestle with when we encounter turbulent, contested and complex situations, whether in work or elsewhere in our lives. The insights below didn’t appear as a neat check-list but rather emerged, through a mixture of reflection, advice from others, gift and grace - the means to navigate uncertain, complex and challenging terrain.
- Access your courage and humility to see yourself clearly – your warts and your glorious bits.
- Be willing to listen to others who may highlight uncomfortable insights about your patterns of behaviours.
- Ask yourself what are core values and principles you want to live by.
- Do your best to embody those values and principles, albeit imperfectly, amidst this turbulence.
- Notice what emotions and issues are arising in a situation, name and acknowledge them (at least to yourself) – without having to immediately fix them, react to them or suppress them.
- Open your eyes to see the wider contexts and how those are shaping not just your behaviour but that of key others in this situation.
- Look at the pattern of relating and interacting that are playing out between you.
- Look at yourself, others and the situation with a curious and compassionate eye rather than a cold, clinical and judging eye. To some extent, we create the environments we live in.
- Entertain the possibility that in their context, with its particular history, others are doing the best they can with what they’ve got.
- Ask yourself what quality you need to embody to heal or shift this situation.
- Share what you see and what you need clearly, directly and wholeheartedly without triggering others into cycles of blame, defence or attack.
- Become clear what values or boundaries you must stand for and protect.
- Develop reflective practices to build awareness of your hot buttons – those things that trigger you into reactive responses.
- Cultivate a daily awareness practice to renew your inner stability without which it is virtually impossible to generate wise responses amidst the turbulence.
- And finally be willing to act and do what is necessary, step into the unknown without being constrained by your role, your story of yourself, or the expectation of others.
And smile, as human beings we are full of contradictions, imperfections as well as beauty.
Power+ Systems Master Trainer and member of P+S Leadership Integration Team