Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dilemmas of Leadership

by Miki Kashtan

Yesterday I came back from 9 days of teaching in a yearlong NVC leadership program. This was the last intensive of the year, and the 9th year of the program. As is often the case, I came face to face with the limits of my own leadership capacity. Specifically, I was grappling with my aversion to imposing anything on anyone, an ongoing challenge of significant intensity for me. Based on observing myself I am confident that because of this aversion I regularly involve groups in decisions that reduce efficiency of functioning without adding much empowerment value or meaning.

In one of those ironies of timing, this was also the week in which I read “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will not be Tweeted.” According to this article (and I confess not being deeply educated on the topic), the Civil Rights movement was heavily centralized in its leadership style. I found that fact disturbing, fascinating, complex, and provocative. Specifically, I find a generative tension in juxtaposing the effectiveness of the Civil Rights movement in its form of leadership with the anti-authoritarian ethos that came to prevail in many subsequent social change movements and lives in me in the form of this aversion to imposing.

Circumstances wouldn’t allow the topic to recede into the background. Yesterday I led a workshop at the Bioneers 2010 conference - Everyone Matters: Interdependence in Action, a topic which emerges directly from the core vision that inspires the work I do with Nonviolent Communication. The questions of leadership were once again prominent: What does this vision tell us about leadership? Is anti-authoritarianism the only way to ensure that everyone’s needs matter? What does all this mean in terms of our collective capacity to contribute to transformation on a significant scale, and to do it with love, courage, and creativity?

With those questions already on my mind, I went directly from my workshop to the Metta Center for Nonviolence for a viewing of a rare documentary about Gandhi made in the early 1950s. When Michael Nagler, founder and president of the Metta Center, initiated a conversation about the film, I raised the question that by then was already burning in me: Is top-down centralized leadership of the kind that both Gandhi and Martin Luther King apparently used absolutely necessary to have an effective movement to create significant change in society?

The conversation that ensued raised even more questions for me, and resolved hardly any. What does it really take for a group to function effectively in service to a complex task? Are emergent, self-organizing groups able to meet such challenges as mobilizing large numbers of people to create structural change using nonviolent methods? If strong leadership is indeed necessary (even Gandhi with all his charisma and willingness to sacrifice everything wasn’t ultimately able to prevent violence from erupting), where is the line between authority and authoritarianism? What can keep people empowered enough so they can entrust decision-making to leaders rather than submit or rebel? What can leaders do to avoid the abuses of power that stem from their own and others habits?

Precisely because I am so committed to transcending and transforming the deeply ingrained models of living and leading that we have inherited, I want to keep asking these questions. I want to think about them deeply, to learn more from what has happened before, to engage with others about them, and to experiment in my own small scale leadership. I have small scale evidence that efficiency is possible without compromising collaboration and empowerment. I feel completely humble about not knowing what’s really possible or necessary. This doesn’t stop me from cultivating the faith that collaborative, empowering, effective, and transparent leadership is scalable, and we can collectively meet the challenges of our time provided we have clarity of purpose, a deep commitment to nonviolence on all levels, and a rigorous personal practice. That is part of how I understand Gandhi’s legacy: an invitation to see means and ends as one, so we can live every moment, personally and as a leader, in courageous pursuit of love and truth.


  1. On the one hand, I enjoy your exploring each & every aspect of this issue, intimately & w/heart-rendering vulnerability. It's honest & refreshing, & it makes me look at my own "stuff." On the other, I'm reminded of what I've been told at times when I was holding-back on being a leader: that if I weren't willing to commit & trust, step forward in faith/confidence, to get out of the way & let those who were assume the role. Consider a hospital,w/many examples of leadership on many levels; yet a patient's outcome is as dependent on the house-cleaning/environmental science dept doing its job well as it is on the surgeon. No matter how well the surgeon may perform a procedure, unless the spaces where patients are located are free from "left-over bacterial contamination," the patient will suffer & perhaps die. A good outcome is the result of everyone's doing the best he/she can in his/her position: personally, I value the contributions equally, yet acknowledge this isn't universally accepted. We're here to serve; all I can do is the best I can do--& I'm willing to do it. Ms. Kastan--you have a lot to offer; accept your gifts & do what it is you want to do! enough of the kvetching!

  2. Miki, I think this is a brave and nuanced meditation on a subject of enormous importance. One of the things that makes leadership so hard in a world which is not needs-based, is that being a leader means “getting more food.” and being a follower means “living in a hovel.” To the extent that everyone’s needs are met, I imagine that doing the work that one has aptitude and training for, or that simply needs to be done well, will be disconnected from the elemental terrors of starvation and abandonment which underly both the submissiveness of the led and the excesses of the leaders.

    Of course, as always, getting from here to there is the trick. Thank you for your willingness to openly share your process. I am made braver by your example.