I am writing this article in Vienna, where I took the time to visit the Victor E. Frankl Museum. I have recently finished reading his book Man’s Search for Meaning, and I was curious to visit the place where he did much of his work, after he was freed from Türkheim camp (associated with Dachau concentration camp).
His story is moving, but it has also resonated with me in a different way… In particular, the quote above from one of the displays in the museum spoke to me. And I believe that things that speak to you in that way, do so for a reason. So I have spent a day or so meditating on these words and what they might mean for me personally. Indeed, what is my personal mission?
What grievances do you perceive?
I understand that the answers to this question will be different for everybody. So I had to start here, by clearly answering the grievances that I perceive – and it took me on a bit of a journey.
It was easy to identify the things that upset me:
- Child abuse
- Domestic violence
- Mistreatment of animals
- Acts of war and genocide
- Human trafficking and slavery
And there are more things. Situations involving children are usually the things that upset me most. This became worse after our son was born, but it existed already.
Yet as I explored these subjects (not fun, I can assure you) I knew I needed to look for a theme. That list includes many things that seem related, but the issues themselves are hugely variable, and not likely to lend themselves to concrete and decisive action – certainly not across the full spectrum. I’m not looking for more than one personal mission!
What theme emerged?
I started by pulling together some clusters of situations.
Any time that someone does not have the opportunity to reach their potential because someone else acted unjustly. For example when a child is killed by a caregiver, what upsets me the most is that we will never know what it was that child could have achieved.
Any time that someone is victimised who cannot speak for themselves. Especially children (see above).
Any acts of dehumanising of people, especially children and the vulnerable.
Abuses of power.
Abuses of power.
It is the abuse of power that leads to the removing of potential, and the victimisation, and the dehumanisation.
It is abuses of power that cause me grievance…
I was a little surprised by this. I’d never really thought about power as being ‘the thing’. But on the other hand, as soon as I wrote it, things began falling into place.
I’m deeply motivated by fairness and justice. I’ve always felt a calling to work for the United Nations for example. I’m interested in how organisations work, and why some work better than others, and Enron, and the grasping – and sharing – of power in organisations. And between countries.
And I distrust people with too much of it. That’s why I care about the ‘service’ in public service. That’s why I care about international relations and strategic studies. And it’s why I studied psychology and criminology.
I also think it is power (perceived lack thereof or a struggle for) that creates domestic violence and some despicable crimes, like rape and sexual assault.
What does this all mean?No human being has the right to wield power over another human being, under any circumstances.Click To Tweet From petty mind-games between a husband and wife to global politics to slavery to domestic violence to war crimes.
I advocate for a more human, more kind, more civil society.
One where we all recognise each other as fellow human beings, and we focus on how we can add value to each other’s lives, rather than extracting value from others.
Positive power. Not negative.
Additive power. Not subtractive.
Constructive power. Not destructive.
Reluctant power. Not seized and held.
Humble power. Not entitled.
Because I am not advocating that power is bad. I’m simply suggesting that the way we’re using it is sometimes wrong.
Skills to wield positive power
So what does it take to exercise these positive forms of power?
- It takes willingness to be vulnerable. You cannot exercise positive power if you are acting from shame.
- It takes a positive mission or goal or purpose. You cannot exercise positive power if what you are striving to achieve is inherently unjust.
- It takes emotional intelligence. You cannot exercise positive power if you do not understand your own feelings and emotions, or those of others.
- It takes a strong moral character. You cannot exercise positive power if you do not know right from wrong (including at the very fine-grained level)
- It takes average levels of literacy and verbal comprehension. You cannot expect high moral behaviour from someone who is constantly frustrated because they cannot express themselves or engage productivity with the world around them.
These are all things which can be taught to children. They are not university level skills, or even vocational level skills, but they will help with both.
They apply at the individual, organisational and national levels. Within families, within communities, within workplaces and between countries.
These super-individual clusters are, after all, made from the minds of people. The systems and structures that are created within them, or by them, represent the ways of thinking of the people in positions of power within those organisations.
Even in countries without democratically elected governments, there is still an extent to which the power system in place is the will of the people – even through their inaction or lack of revolution. In many instances, these systems of government also support facets of human life that the people within it like. Or don’t know any better. There will usually be a sizeable group with whom ‘partial’ power is shared – often in a ‘trinkets’ and baubles kind of way. Just enough that the masses don’t feel sufficiently put out to revolt, but not enough to create any real power shift or threat.
What is the difference between someone who works as a retail assistant and someone who works as prime minister or president?
While some of it might come down to who they know or what school their parents could afford to send them to, in the main, the things that separate these two (fictional) archetypes are individual choices (not right or wrong):
- Choices about values
- Choices about what matters
- Choices about purpose
- Choices about legacy and impact
- Choices about lifting others up, or lifting oneself up (these are not necessarily the way around that you think
Let me be clear, I’m not saying that the politician made good choices about these things, and that the retail assistant didn’t – or vice versa. I’m saying that they made different choices throughout their lives. Choices that led them to different places, introduced them to different people, created different opportunities.
All of this got me thinking about what we need to do.
Spend less time judging and more time doing your own version of awesome. Relative results don’t matter a damn. You might be the most contented, kind and decent retail assistant… or the most miserable, power-hungry and deceitful politician. Or vice versa.
What matters is what you do, and what you think about what you do. And what you were trying to do. And how hard you tried. And how often you were prepared to fail. And what you did when you failed. And that you got back up again. You got up and you stood up. And you made the world a better place because you were in it.
You are not perfect. There is no such thing as perfect. The people you think are perfect think someone else is perfect. Nothing good comes from wishing you were something you are not. So let go of perfect. Focus instead on being better. Whatever that looks like for you.
And I am going to make it my personal mission to advocate for positive power – and the minimisation of negative power. Starting right where I am – but building outwards (and inevitably upwards).
And what does power have to do with leadership?
Are you with me?
Hear me chatting with Hayley Collins…
Hayley’s podcast is great, I strongly recommend you subscribe so you don’t miss a single one!
In Episode 25 she chats with me about what it means to be a Chief Executive – some of the things that people tell you but you don’t really understand until you’re alone in the hot-seat.
This is a side of me you won’t have seen, as I don’t talk much about my ‘day-job’ here on the Blog.
The First Time Manager’s Crash Course Part One and Part Two are out now on Skillshare.
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