Thursday, April 19, 2012

Leadership, Empowerment, and Interdependence

by Miki Kashtan

For some years now, I’ve been learning through ongoing experimentation what collaborative leadership means. It’s not been easy, because our either/or lens on reality renders the space between coercive leadership and no leadership elusive, almost invisible. Which is not to say it’s not there, as so many successful leaders know. What it means is that we lack forms, models, and habits of collaborative leadership which are essential for transforming the way we use power and how we respond to power and leadership.

In my own experiments, I have brought forth an endless dedication to empowering people when I lead, a deep commitment to transparency in my leadership style, and enormous willingness to work with what ensues when people wake up to their power. The results have often been bewildering. More often than not, it seems that the more explicitly I invite people to self-responsibility and participation, the more effortful I find the process of facilitating and the more I hear disappointment and even criticism and judgment of my choices. At other times, when I present and follow a clear structure with limited participation in shaping the content or outcome of the event - whether it be a training or a staff retreat I facilitate - people appear to be much more satisfied and my work appears dramatically easier.

This past week I led my first of three retreats of Leveraging Your Influence Using NVC - the new program I started this year. Given the purpose of this program, it was particularly important to me to invite others to co-create with me. In working through what happened over the six days that we were together, I was able, for the first time, to have some beginning understanding about the puzzle related to my own efforts at collaborative leadership. As I know that many others are doing their own experiments with collaborative leadership, perhaps what I learned may be of use. 

Power and Interdependence
In the traditional models we have inherited, power resides outside us, usually attributed to the designated leader. Even as we seek to transform the world, we continue to act as if this is true. I cannot count the number of times when I hear from people, be it participants at a workshops or employees in an organization I support, that it never occurred to them to attempt to shape the outcome of a decision or an event when one thing or another didn’t work for them. They implicitly assume that they have no power and no “right” to power. I have seen this dynamic happen even in response to explicit invitations on my part to participate. By virtue of my making a request from a position of power, many hear it as a demand and respond accordingly by resentfully submitting or defiantly rebelling.

Even when no designated leader exists, people are often more likely to leave a group believing they don’t “fit in” rather than to recognize that they are, by definition, an integral part of the group and to choose active participation in shaping the nature and actions of the group.

Aside from our acquired aversion to conflict, this profound disempowerment is intimately related to our struggles to grasp our interdependent relationships with others. Everyone I have ever asked has felt the effect of someone walking out of a group and yet we continue to believe that our presence or absence don’t have an effect on others and continue to choose to leave. People come fully alive when they tell or hear stories of giving to others and yet we continue to proclaim an illusory self-sufficiency in which we don’t ask for what we need. So much pain arises when others make decisions that affect us without our participation and yet so many of us stiffen up when we imagine making decisions with others, fearing the potential loss of our autonomy. The very act of dialogue with others appears to some of us as giving up on our needs. The vision of a world where everyone’s needs matter intuitively appeals to people and yet the capacity to hold our own and others’ needs at the same time remains beyond reach in the face of apparent scarcity. We give up on our own needs to focus on others’, or we tune them out in our efforts to make things work for us. Separation, scarcity, and powerlessness combine to perpetuate an ongoing experience in which we feel alone and helpless to care for ourselves in a fundamentally hostile world.

Waking Up to Our Needs    
The insight I had this week was an understanding of what happens when we wake up to our human needs and to our power to take actions to meet them. Without an awareness of and practice in engaging with our interdependence, we are then most likely to advocate for our needs rather than take on the complex art of balancing our needs with those of others. Simply put, our collaboration skills have been stunted by centuries of focusing on competition and individualism. As a result, for many of us waking up to our needs means increased conflict in our lives. In the context of a group, this means more challenge in navigating group decision making and flow. This is one way of understanding some of the challenges of the Occupy movement, for example. After such a long time of stifling our needs and having no voice in what happens, the surge of energy that comes with realizing that we do have a voice can easily result in an insistence on speaking up regardless of what else is going on, regardless of the task at hand or the potential effect on others.

This is also what happens, regularly, when I invite people, especially in the multi-day retreats that I lead, to risk their power and participate in shaping what happens. Instead of being joined in holding responsibility for the whole and in the art of balancing everyone’s needs, I am handed a larger and more charged pile of needs to balance. Instead of appreciation for the invitation to empowerment, I encounter a criticism and disappointment when I fail, by necessity, in my attempts to balance and include everyone’s needs to their satisfaction in all moments.

Getting Better at Collaborative Leadership
One unexpected outcome of understanding this dynamic is increased compassion for people who are leaders or would-be leaders. I can see why people who rise to positions of leadership, even those who were previously critical of those in power, begin to make unilateral decisions without considering the effect on others. The challenge of navigating everyone’s needs is so big, that reducing the data or finding ways of controlling the outcome provide much more manageability. I can also understand why others, weary of the idolization followed by criticism of leadership, attempt to protect themselves by acting as if they don’t have power. No wonder some people, concerned about their capacity to withstand the pressures of power and responsibility while remaining true to their values, avoid leadership altogether and remain invisible by choice.

None of these options appeals to me. I want to continue to provide direction and vision while finding ways of collaborating with others. Paradoxically, the more I can remember the reality of disempowerment and isolation that filters how people hear me, the more I might succeed in expressing myself in ways that allow people to awaken directly to our interdependence. However challenging, this task of transforming the legacy of domination and developing collaborative leadership is essential to our survival. I take it on willingly.


  1. Remembering that the forms are still emerging sparks anew a sense of compassion for all of us who are trying to figure out our relationship to leadership and power. I also feel grateful to know there are many who have the intention to seek these new forms, and I'm inspired to know the effort continues. And to remember that with each attempt, there is more learning, and thus progress.

    I also reflect that I seem more comfortable "leading from the side," as one friend puts it. That is, connecting with people who lead in various capacities, without putting myself out there directly. This post invites me to consider what it would take for me to step out there more visibly. And to be conscious of the challenges in that.

  2. Miki

    Once again a thought provoking and challenging topic. You write "Instead of appreciation for the invitation to empowerment, I encounter a criticism and disappointment when I fail, by necessity, in my attempts to balance and include everyone’s needs to their satisfaction in all moments." I'm hearing your frustration but also your passion for collaborative leadership. I breathe a sigh of relief knowing (as a group member) how frustrating top-down leadership can be but also knowing the difficulties of collaborative leadership from the perspective of a group leader. I'm really glad to hear you take on the challenge of developing collaborative leadership willingly.

    In the spirit of collaboration, I feel drawn to offer perspective from my experience. One thing that comes to mind: when I notice discord in a group and things not getting done, I often find that problem solving (strategy) has happened before people really know they've been heard. In my experience as a leader, deep listening can defuse many situations. I'm also very aware that letting everyone be heard can be frustrating if a group is trying to accomplish a task. No one wants to stop and spend precious minutes listening to one individual or small group.

    You write: "the surge of energy that comes with realizing that we do have a voice can easily result in an insistence on speaking up regardless of what else is going on, regardless of the task at hand or the potential effect on others".

    For me, one of the group leader's most important roles is to provide structure to let expression happen but in a productive way. (Within structure lies freedom.) For instance, not all listening needs to happen in the full group. When leading a group, I've often listened to small groups or individuals while the rest of the group is doing something else. Then when we come back together, I'm more in tune with what is actually happening in different sub groups and I can let people know I've heard them in small ways that don't take a lot of time. I'm also cognizant that some individuals may not speak up easily in the full group but their input might bring to the fore issues that are small or unexpressed but which could provoke discord later. I find soliciting input in creative ways works wonders (eg. stream-of-consciousness writing and then sharing in the full group, or going around the circle asking for one feeling word.)

    You write: "The very act of dialogue with others appears to some of us as giving up on our needs." For me, this happens when I don't think my deeper needs have really been heard especially when strategies have been mistaken for needs. For instance, I might propose a specific way to do something. Instead of problem solving to meld my way with someone else's way, what I really want (though I might find it difficult to verbalize it in the moment) is for someone to hear the deeper yearning underneath what I said.

    From my favorite book on leadership "The Tao of Leadership":

    "The leader who knows how to be still and feel deeply will probably be effective...Remember that the method is awareness of process."

  3. Oh my gosh, Miki, I feel a big relief and my shoulders feeling really relaxed reading this. To have my experience, both as a leader and as a participant, actually, put into words so clearly helps me understand and make sense of it. And also to accept it. I have a sense of knowing the "real challenge" now, and have more compassion for myself as a leader, as a participant still new at getting in touch with needs and power, for other leaders in my life, and participants of my programs. Such a relief to have this understanding and compassion. Feeling really grateful for your having the experience and thoughtfulness to make this clear. Thank you!

    And it's funny, as I was reading this, I was mourning most of what I was processing. And now, I feel so inspired and rejuvenated. Something about the clarity, understanding, acceptance, and compassion I think. Thank you again!

  4. Hi Miki,
    I'm feling very energized and curious reading your post.

    As I grow in my acceptance of myself as a "growing leader" and in my acceptance of my own power, I find, as you describe, that my own ability to be honest, transparent, and vulnerable has a major impact on my ability to maintain and increase connection with others in my workplace.

    I remember raising the question with a colleague: I wonder why, when people come into leadership decisions, they sometimes become less forthcoming and transparent about their decision-making. I acknowledged that I have this tendency too, probably because I have such a deep fear of losing my newfound power, that I actually panic at the thought of being demoted back down to no-power! As you say, as if there's nothing in between. My colleague could empathize with me and wonder for herself what it would be like if she were in my position.

    Thank you for writing about this topic and stimulating very exciting movement in the direction of leadership that is connecting and humane.

    In peace,
    Shira P.

  5. I was part of the retreat mentioned and learned much about group process that I will be able to apply to groups I am involved in. One thing we did that served to help everyone feel heard, I believe, is to create small groups to write down suggested ways to move forward. We collected all the ideas and created a smaller group that worked on condensing those ideas into one proposal that would meet all the needs. The proposal was accepted, I believe, because all the needs were heard and included. This worked very well and could be applied in any context where there are diverse voices and a lot of them.

    I was thinking that the same process could be applied to an intention setting process at the beginning of any meeting or event. This would bring everyone's voices into the fold from the earliest time possible so there would hopefully less need for individuals to popcorn their thoughts at every turn.

    It's so exciting to me to even be asking the questions of how to hold power and leadership in a way that holds everyone's needs and encourages and inspires others to lead and be empowered as well...and do all that while still meeting the need for order and smooth functioning in a group. I see this as a huge learning curve for all of us to even figure out how to do this so that we can "Leverage our Influence" in larger and larger contexts...influencing the world to envision the possibility of governance and systems that really do put the needs of all (humans and the living earth, Gaia) at the center of our intentions and visions...and then working toward creating those structures so that it becomes easier and easier until it's just the normal way to do things. Now wouldn't that be nice?

    I see leadership as a tremendous service. You put yourself in a position of taking a lot of heat from others when things don't go the way they want and the service is not always recognized as such. And as long as individuals accept their own disempowerment then it is easy to stay small and safe from the gaze of others and to criticize those who lead. I would like to find ways to help people (including myself!) break through that mentality to realize that they are always influencing the world around them, either consciously or not. And when something is not to their liking there are ways to move into leadership toward positive change that can include gratitude and appreciation for others who have also taken on that service. I think there is room for a lot more leadership in every arena of life. This to me is a big part of realize while we are each responsible for ourselves we also each have the capacity to take on and hold much more than our own isolated needs. In fact our needs include the experience of interdependence itself! Much of this is also about taking leadership off of the pedestal and embracing everyone, including ourselves and others who are in leadership roles, as a work in progress.

    Thank you Miki for continuing to stretch into the unknown and pave the way...your leadership is deeply appreciated.

  6. Issues mentioned in Miki's essay include: people's tendency to assume that they have no power or no "right" to power, even when invited to participate; people interpreting their needs not being met in a group activity as their "not fitting in" rather than as an invitation to enter dialog, and not appreciating how their withdrawal is a loss to all; a tendency, when first awaking to power, to champion individual needs in a way that might not reflect a balancing and holding precious of everyone's needs; and the challenge leaders face, with inviting collaboration potentially creating turmoil and dissatisfaction, with leaders being treated as separate, either through idolization or harsh criticism -- associated with those led assigning all power (and responsibility) to the leader rather than to themselves.

    I’d like to highlight another issue. I have a sense that a great deal of turmoil may result when that "invitation to participate" is not clear and not manifest in the way what happens is structured. This sets up a dilemma in which people may be excited by the idea that they are being invited to co-create, but are not aware of a mechanism whereby this can happen as fully as they would like, and so experience a sense of incongruity, confusion, and frustration.

    For collaborative leadership to happen smoothly, it may not be sufficient for there to be the willingness for and invitation to collaboration. One may also need to include explicit structural elements that offer readily apparent mechanisms for that collaboration to occur. Perhaps collaborative leadership is partly about leading in ensuring that such elements are present, usable, and in people's awareness.

    An element supporting collaboration might be checking in: to offer a proposed plan, to get a sense of whether people think this is likely to meet needs, and to get agreement/consent; and also, to ask explicitly about what people are wanting. I imagine that it would support a sense of collaboration if a leader offers structure to get things started, but does not go too long before checking in around a proposed plan, and then doesn't go too long without checking on whether people are content that the plan is meeting needs. Also, it makes sense to include explicit inquiry into what people are wanting relatively early in the proceedings.

    Another element might be to make explicit what the ways are that are being invited for people to use to express their feedback, wishes, and leadership -- and to check whether these mechanisms seem likely to be sufficient (since mechanisms that involve too much delay, for example, may cut off some of the potential aliveness of collaboration).

    If one's purpose is to teach empowerment, there may be a tension in all this. I think the elements I've mentioned make collaboration easier -- and, they don't require that people become aware of the ways they've been disempowering themselves, and how they could empower themselves even in situations that don't offer overt mechanisms for stepping up into full participation. So, one might deliberately choose to omit such elements with an intention of creating frustration and inviting the discovery of power. That’s fine if it’s a conscious choice; otherwise, I wonder if introducing the right structural elements might just smooth the path.

  7. [Limits on comment lengths prevented me from including this in my previous comment]

    Collaboration is likely to be supported by addressing shared purpose. Trainer Gregg Kendrick, who focuses on the use of NVC in organizations, says that shared purpose is what defines a group, makes it distinct from a mere collection of people. He offers a process whereby a group collectively articulates its shared purpose in a way that is ultimately poetic and deeply moving. At a retreat of his I attended, individual affinity groups used this process to articulate their shared purpose; partly as a result of that, I feel close to those individuals years later. There is magic in experiencing a strong connection to a meaningful shared purpose. And I think part of the magic may be in the co-creation of it. It might be that a leader can articulate a purpose, and rally people around them to serve that purpose. Yet, I worry that it's easy for people to nominally agree to a purpose someone else has articulated without there being a shared understanding of what it really means.

    So, early on in a venture, it may be worthwhile to take time to have a conversation about the shared purpose of that venture, to really get clear about what the group is for, and to what extent there is a shared reality around the vision of the group. Planning to have that conversation about shared purpose is a structural element that could support collaboration.