Tag Archives: non-coercive leadership

When Lily Says “No”

Always take no for an answer is a cardinal rule of asking, I wrote in my first post on this theme. It’s a version of the golden rule that’s especially worth bearing in mind when making plans to collaborate or act with others, or just talking about what we are going to do.

While giving someone an order might be a way to delegate authority and raise her stature in a group, asking recognizes the authority and standing she already has. According this basic respect takes precedence over extracting promises and concessions or getting to yes in a conversation or negotiation, and unless another person can say “no” and have that answer heeded, she will never really be able to say “we”. “No” marks the spot where you stop and we begin.

In other words, taking no for an answer is not just about respecting others, but about respecting and caring for how things are between us (the theme of a post I wrote earlier this week) and for the sense of us we have. That sense of us is how we make up and maintain the social world together. When we ask someone to do something, or ask what we are going to do, we openly acknowledge that there is — or can be — a “we,” not just you and I, but a plural first person. Asking creates an opening. It puts us out in the open.

The philosopher Margaret Gilbert seems to be heading in this same direction when she remarks in passing: “successfully questioning someone involves entering a joint commitment with that person.”

Take a moment to consider the example she offers. Bob addresses Lily with the question, “Shall we dance?” And Lily answers, “Yes, lets!” From this point on, the usual Gilbertian scenario unfolds. Having expressed their readiness to enter a joint commitment — indicating “that all is in order as far as one’s own will is concerned” — Bob and Lily are now jointly committed to dance together.

Once they start dancing, or, actually, even before that, once Lily has said yes and as she rises from her seat, each will have to answer to the other in the event one of them violates the joint commitment, or at least Lily would be justified in complaining if Bob were to drag his feet, go outside for a smoke, or give in to sultry Melissa, who is beckoning with her eyes from the other side of the room.

Unfortunately, Gilbert never elaborates on what “successfully questioning someone” entails, or what might make it different from unsuccessfully questioning someone. On the surface, it looks as if Bob “successfully” questions Lily here because she says “yes” to his request: she accepts his invitation to dance. Bob and Lily have therefore reached an explicit agreement. But let’s not confuse successfully questioning someone with getting to yes, or confuse getting to yes with reaching an agreement. (It’s worth noting that for Gilbert, joint commitments don’t always entail explicit agreements. The way Gilbert puts it is: “everyday agreements can be understood as constituted by…joint commitments” [her emphasis]).

What if Lily says “no”? What if she rolls her eyes, or sticks her nose in the air? In that case, has something like an agreement been reached?

Maybe. As long as Bob takes Lily’s no for an answer, we can say he and Lily have agreed not to dance. Of course, Bob might not like our putting it that way. He might say he failed to get Lily to dance with him, but that might also go to show that he was not prepared to take no for an answer and regarded Lily’s consent as the only acceptable outcome. We might do better if we were to characterize Bob’s questioning Lily in terms of Lily’s responsiveness — on that score, both yes and no would count as success — or if we think about what Bob’s asking Lily to dance and Lily’s refusal puts between them, how it constitutes them as a plural subject.

Though not committed to dance together, Bob and Lily are not done with each other or free of shared commitments after Lily says “no.” In a very important way, their relationship has just begun. When one person addresses or flags the attention of another, with a question or a nod, the squeak of a chair or a sneeze, they “jointly commit to recognizing as a body that the two of them are co-present,” Gilbert writes. People mutually recognize each other in this way all the time, on queues and in coffee shops, in bookstore aisles and on city sidewalks. Here we are, a “we”. Asking helps get us there.

So even if Lily politely refuses Bob with a “no thank you,” or rudely brushes him off, Bob can take solace in the thought that he has successfully questioned Lily. Bob’s failed bid to dance with Lily commits Lily and Bob to recognize that the two of them are co-present, there in the dance hall. Bob and Lily now have a sense of us, even if Lily will never dance with Bob, and that sense — that relationship — will endure.

With that enduring sense of us between them, Bob and Lily are now jointly committed to Lily’s refusal as well. So if Bob were to order Lily or insist that she dance with him, or grab her by the arm and drag her to the dance floor, coercing her, Lily has every right to complain. And if the next time Bob saw Lily he were to pretend that she never refused him at the dance, he would be doing Lily wrong.

Serious Conversations, 7

In these notes on serious conversations, I keep circling back, it seems, to two ideas: first, that what makes a conversation serious is not its subject matter or tone, but the stance of its participants toward each other; and, second, that the conversational stance requires that we confer a certain authority on our interlocutors, or (to put it another way) recognize that they have standing to address us.

While other kinds of authority — title, rank, role — are of secondary importance, and can sometimes even get in the way, this moral authority or standing is fundamental. It does not have to be earned, proven or ratified by reference to some person, written instrument or record of accomplishment outside the conversation or by institutional set up. It is constituted and realized in the relationship you and I have — or, if that is just too clunky, let’s say it is the relationship you and I have; and it is sufficient authority for a serious conversation because it makes us mutually accountable to each other.

Where this equal human stature (or dignity) is respected (and appreciated), it can be a source of power: not just the power of one over another, but the power to make claims or demands of each other, or to ask and answer, and this power of asking is essential if we are going to deliberate in earnest about our situation or collaborate on something new.

The conversational stance allows for genuine co-creation, because it’s not founded on subordination or one person ordering the other about. And the capacity for co-creation, the creative power that we share, only increases as we include more people in the circle of the conversation. (Of course there are limits: the research on group size and social complexity Dunbar summarizes suggests the circle probably should not widen beyond 150 people.)

I’ve tried to capture this thought in a simple rule: the power of asking will always be greater than the power of command.

That’s the basic position.

Another way to put the same thought might be in terms of the mechanics of ordering versus asking: whereas in the former we have one person directing the will of another, as we might address a short-order cook, in the latter we direct each other’s wills, so that we are, to stick with the metaphor, chefs in our own kitchen.

Of course the usual caveat applies about too many cooks spoiling the broth, I guess, but let’s also remember that people have different talents, training and competencies, and we can worry about how to order and organize ourselves once it comes to the actual cooking. Right now we’re just having a conversation.

Let’s also acknowledge, while we’re at it, that short-order cooks are models of industrial-era efficiency (but no longer efficient enough for the post-industrial fast food kitchen); gains in co-creativity can and probably will translate to losses in short-term efficiency.

Some concessions on one side or the other will probably have to be made, but too often the proponents of efficiency win without any argument, and people start giving orders or setting out plans for what’s to be done before the conversation even has a chance to get started. That’s when all the real power goes out of the room.

“For me, music has no leader”

In 1997, Ornette Coleman was in Paris to play at La Villette, and sat down for an interview with French philosopher Jacques Derrida.  The interview was the subject of a thoughtful piece by Richard Brody in the New Yorker a few years ago, but I came across it only this morning. This part of the exchange especially resonates with me, as it has to do with conversations without a leader (an idea I’ve been exploring in some of my posts on the power of asking).

On the one hand, Coleman has throughout his career had to dispel the notion that in playing free jazz, “I just picked up my saxophone and played whatever was going through my head, without following any rule, but that wasn’t true.”  He struggled, on the other hand, with the hierarchical, bureaucratic rigidity of the New York Philharmonic, where he had to submit a composition “to the person in charge of scores…to be sure the Philharmonic wouldn’t be disturbed.”  He works according to another model — a conversation in which no one is “in charge,” but in which the participants can rely on  a “framework” (usually, but not always, provided by the piano).

Here is Timothy S. Murphy’s translation:

OC: For the Philharmonic I had to write out parts for each instrument, photocopy them, then go see the person in charge of scores. But with jazz groups, I compose and I give the parts to the musicians in rehearsal. What’s really shocking in improvised music is that despite its name, most musicians use a framework [trame] as a basis for improvising. I’ve just a recorded a CD with a European musician, Joachim Kuhn, and the music I wrote to play with him, that we recorded in August 1996, has two characteristics: it’s totally improvised, but at the same time it follows the laws and rules of European structure. And yet, when you hear it, it has a completely improvised feel [air].

JD: First the musician reads the framework, then brings his own touch to it.

OC: Yes, the idea is that two or three people can have a conversation with sounds, without trying to dominate it or lead it. What I mean is that you have to be…intelligent, I suppose that’s the word. In improvised music, I think the musicians are trying to reassemble an emotional or intellectual puzzle, in any case a puzzle in which the instruments give the tone. It’s primarily the piano that has served at all times as the framework in music, but it’s no longer indispensable and, in fact, the commercial aspect of music is very uncertain. Commercial music is not necessarily more accessible, but it is limited.

JD: When you begin to rehearse, is everything ready, written, or do you leave space for the unforeseen?

OC: Let’s suppose that we’re in the process of playing and you hear something that you think could be improved: you could tell me, “You should try this.” For me, music has no leader.

JD: What do you think of the relationship between the precise event that constitutes the concert and pre-written music or improvised music? Do you think that pre-written music prevents the event from taking place?

OC: No, I don’t know if it’s true for language, but in jazz you can take a very old piece and do another version of it. What’s exciting is the memory that you bring to the present. What you’re talking about, the form that metamorphoses into other forms, I think it’s something healthy, but very rare.

JD: Perhaps you will agree with me on the fact that the very concept of improvisation verges upon reading, since what we understand by improvisation is the creation of something new, yet something which doesn’t exclude the pre-written framework that makes it possible.

OC: That’s true.

 

The New Collaboration

collaboration

“Collaboration” enters the English language in the latter half of the nineteenth century, from French. The OED notes that the word applies especially to literary, artistic and scientific work.

The spike in usage during and immediately after the Second World War comes as no surprise. In a second French import, the words “collaborate,” “collaborator,” and “collaboration” figure prominently in accounts of quislingism or collusion with the authorities and occupying forces.

But what explains the surge in usage from the mid-1980s on? Nothing very French at all. Instead, during this period, the American business world rehabilitates the word.

The word “collaboration” has now shed many of its sinister associations, and it’s become so commonplace that we no longer consider it pretentious or even wrongheaded to elevate the doings of the workplace to a level of human achievement and excellence formerly reserved for intellectual and artistic endeavor.

In the process, we have lost sight of just how rare, intellectually trying and emotionally fraught truly collaborative work can be.

The special working relationships forged by composers and librettists, scientists and illustrators, dancers and musicians, writers and photographers, etc., are usually not made to last; but while they last, they offer collaborators a chance to accomplish something that they could never accomplish if left to themselves.

Now, however, we are regularly asked to believe that collaboration can be something people do every day, on the job. How is that going to happen?

You obviously can’t mandate collaboration: “’lets force people to collaborate.’ Sounds really dumb, doesn’t it?” business consultant Daniel Mezick asked just the other day. Dumb — or downright totalitarian. It’s equally senseless to expect collaborative behavior where people are getting bossed around, or promote collaboration while leaving powers of command and organizational hierarchy intact.

Misguided efforts to institutionalize collaboration can also crush creative resistance and penalize rule-breaking — the very essence of successful collaboration — or at least reign in and stifle creative individuals who excel when they disregard protocol and go it alone.

Serious Conversations, 1

In a previous post I pledged to say something about serious conversations, so I’ve set out to make a little headway on that topic. This is a first try. I’ll correct or advance what I manage to say here in subsequent posts.

A rule of thumb: serious conversations are more likely to involve demands than commands.

I’m not giving up at all on the idea that commands can be legitimate or given legitimately, or that those being ordered about can vest the person giving the orders (by contract, consent or some prior agreement) with legitimate authority. (Without that authority, commands have to rely on coercion.) But usually a command is not an invitation to deliberate; instead, the person giving the command has already reserved all deliberative rights – all rights to determine what there are reasons to do – to himself.

Just the other day, on the subway, I overheard a man complaining about his boss to a co-worker. His boss had told him: “I don’t want to see you on any floors you’re not assigned to. You stay on floors 4, 5 and 6.” Whether the boss didn’t trust this guy to move about freely, had something to hide on the other floors (as the worker suspected), or had some other reasons for controlling and monitoring the movements of his workers – or just this one worker – is impossible to say. In any case, this order was not an invitation to discuss the best arrangement or to trade reasons, and the disgruntled worker could only speculate: “There’s gotta be a reason for that.” Gotta be, but in this case, the boss had arrogated all reasons and reason-giving to himself; and — tellingly — that had led the worker to distrust him and question his order-giving authority.

I gathered this example by eavesdropping, I know, and I have only one person’s side of the story, but for now let it stand. It helps shore up the point that commands issued without explanation – or without giving others a share in reasons – can damage trust and undermine the authority of the one giving the commands. Of course, the two things are intimately related: what is authority without trust?

Serious conversations invite others to share in giving and finding reasons and in determining what there are reasons to do. They create opportunities for co-deliberation. To undertake the search for reasons or the giving of them, together, we are required to vest each other only with an authority equal to our own – the authority to make demands of each other (or to hold each other mutually accountable). Recognizing that authority in others and in ourselves won’t necessarily build trust, but it is difficult to trust someone who refuses or neglects to account for himself and who does not demand or ask the same of us.

It’s Lonely at the Top – Nietzsche, Mother Teresa and Non-Coercive Leadership

I returned to my old paperback copy of Zarathustra recently, this time in connection with some work I’ve been doing on the topic of non-coercive power, or what I have been calling the power of asking. I’ve been developing some thoughts around this mantra: The power of asking will always be greater than the power of command. So it seemed to me I ought to come to terms with or at least try to deepen my understanding of what Nietzsche says in this book about command, or coercive power.

I was specifically interested in the pronouncement made in “The Stillest Hour” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 2, chapter 44):

‘…You are one who has unlearned obeying: now shall you command!’
‘Do you not know who is most needed by all? The one who commands great things.
‘To accomplish great things is difficult: but more difficult is to command great things.
‘That is what is most unpardonable in you: You have the power and you do not want to rule.’

It’s a chapter of Thus Spoke Zarathustra that has attracted a lot of important commentary, from Jung’s seminars on Zarathustra in the 1930s to Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign seminars in 2001-2. It’s a crux, a point of departure, and it’s also a spot where I might have to take my leave of Nietzsche. How are we to read the injunction here to “command” anew, or to “rule” according to one’s “power”, after one has “unlearned obeying”?

It’s an easy rhetorical move to make, from obeying to commanding, but it seemed to me it also might involve a serious misstep — to unlearn obedience, only to take up, or institute, command.

Put aside for the moment the questionable judgment of “what is most needed by all,” and the ethical as well as the political consequences that judgment, or others like it, could have and historically have had. I am equally wary of the emphasis here on doing and commanding “great” things, or at least wary of misreading it. The pursuit of “great things” (Großes) tends to invite and encourage, or at least excuse, all sorts of abuses.

To wield coercive power, to direct or to command great things may indeed be difficult, even more difficult than doing great things; but it is harder still, I think, and it is really the more urgent project, to unlearn obedience and command and to learn, instead, the practice of non-coercive power.

If that means scaling down from great to small, then I’m happy to start small and, if need be, stay small. I’m not suggesting we stop dreaming and doing great things, taking on big challenges, imagining great enterprises, but in most cases I am inclined to urge and apply something like the rule of Mother Teresa: “don’t look for big things, just do small things with great love…. The smaller the thing, the greater must be our love.” (That much misquoted line, by the way, is from her “Instructions to the M.C. Sisters,” October 30th, 1981, as cited by Brian Kolodiejchuk in Come Be My Light.)

Here, I imagine, Nietzsche might wish take his leave of me, or at least Nietzscheans and devout Catholics alike will cry out in exasperation or horror at the unholy coupling I’ve just imagined. But I suspect that when all is said and done, these two points of view can be reconciled, or at least they are not so far apart as they may at first seem. Consider, just for starters, the answer Zarathustra receives when he objects that he lacks the lion’s voice for command: “Thoughts that come on dove’s feet guide the world.’”

More on that another day. Here I want only to point out the thing that was on my mind this morning: that is Zarathustra’s sadness as he takes leave of his friends at the close of the second book. My Stillest Hour, Zarathustra’s “terrible mistress” — “or something,” which speaks to him “voicelessly” — has “ordered” him to to leave. He obeys. Yes, obeys; he announces at the start of the chapter that he is “unwillingly obedient,” unwillig-folgsam. He comes to his friends deeply troubled and unhappy; and after he has recounted the conversation with his mistress he is overwhelmed:

when Zarathustra had spoken these words, the force of his pain and the nearness of the parting from his friends overwhelmed him, such that he wept loudly; and no one knew how to console him. That night, however, he went away alone and left his friends.

Zarathustra will “go as a shadow of that which must come: thus will you command, and thus lead the way.” But to command and to lead he must “mellow.” As his mistress tells him, his fruits are ripe, but he is not ripe for his fruits: “so,” she continues, “you must go back to your solitude.” To deprive himself of all human society may, in fact, prepare Zarathustra to command great things; but it’s painful to leave his friends. So painful that he weeps — loudly.

Exile may be the price Zarathustra must pay to overcome himself and lead the way. It’s lonely at the top, and Zarathustra’s mountain is no exception. But it’s also worth reminding ourselves of less romantic and heroic ideas of what it means to lead.

Unlearn obeying and then, the most difficult thing of all: unlearn command. If we practice non-coercive leadership, we can learn to create and share power with others, without reverting to command or obedience, and without taking our leave of those we love.

Collecting My Thoughts, Collecting Myself

I’m starting to think of this blog as INSEAD professor Gianpiero Petriglieri has taught me to think of Twitter: as “a public notebook” — a place to collect, reflect and share. I’ve kept notebooks for years, but they’ve always been closely-kept, private affairs. Those notebooks can be scattered and go off in all sorts of directions, but I realize that the public aspect of this notebook carries some obligation to put the pieces together every once in a while, or at least to reflect on where things appear to be heading.

This morning’s post about Sister Mary Lou Wirtz and non-coercive leadership brought some new clarity and gave me a chance to gather my thoughts.

As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I’ve been looking at models of non-coercive power, dialogue as an alternative to coercive power, asking as an alternative to command-obedience. It’s a big topic, which I try to describe with the rubric The Power of Asking, and it branches out in many different directions.

I’ve written about the use and abuse of the word “ask” and the practice of asking, as well as some literary and historical examples that illustrate the subject. On a related front, I’ve looked at human rights frameworks, including the Ruggie Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights and the concept of “free, prior and informed consent” enshrined in the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and tried to appreciate how questions of autonomy, respect and consensus-building figure into them. In posts on the role of business in society and on issues in corporate governance, I’ve explored some alternatives to organizational models of command and control (which institutionalize coercive power or command-obedience, usually in the name of “efficiency” and often to the detriment of creativity, learning and innovation); and I’ve tried to outline some of the rules of “engagement” that could inform a framework for shareholder dialogues to make companies more responsive and responsible.

There are other models to consider as well — call them conceptual models. My reading list would have to include Illich on conviviality, Arendt’s discussion of “initiative” in The Human Condition (no, the whole book, from start to finish, but especially the section on Action) as well as, I suppose, Habermas’s reflections on non-coercive dialogue, and some of the work on ethics that came out of Bernard Williams’s seminal paper on “Internal and External Reasons.” And then there are anthropological texts like Clastres Society Against the State, Richard White’s The Middle Ground and James C. Scott’s book on Zomia, which ground some of these philosophical considerations in social realities. These are touchstones for me, readings that have shaped and continue to shape my thinking about non-coercive power and help me ask questions about language, power and the possibility of dialogue. They’ve also helped me to think about what happens to all these questions when one attempts to move from theory to practice; more often than not, as I’ve tried to make clear, things fall apart, good intentions go bad, and people resort to coercion, displays of power, issuing commands, demanding obedience and asserting authority.

With this framework in mind, I am currently developing two projects. The first is a writing project that I’m calling The Power of Asking, which will develop the theme of non-coercive power and try to articulate something like a model of non-coercive leadership. The second is a documentary film tentatively titled Prosperity, which is set against the backdrop of the mining boom around Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; there, issues of free, prior and informed consent as well as critical issues of corporate responsibility and environmental ethics are at stake (along with the future of Lake Superior itself).

As I continue to write on the theme of asking and develop and raise funds for my new documentary project, I will probably break out each of these projects into subpages. (And by the way, if you know anyone who is super-talented when it comes to WordPress and can help me make this whole effort a little less pedestrian-looking, please send me a message — @lvgaldieri — on Twitter). In the meantime, rest assured there is method in my madness here, even if I myself often don’t realize it.

A Model of Non-Coercive Leadership

This morning I was humbled to discover that almost everything I have been trying to learn about non-coercive power (or what I’ve been calling The Power of Asking) Sister Mary Lou Wirtz appears already to know. Or so it seems from an interview with Sister Wirtz in the National Catholic Reporter.

Wirtz belongs to the Franciscan order, but she also serves as President of the International Union of Superiors General and is a recognized leader of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The Leadership Conference, which represents about 600,000 nuns and sisters around the world, has been at loggerheads with the Vatican for some time now. After an assessment that found “serious doctrinal problems” with the LCWR (a finding Pope Francis recently reaffirmed), the Vatican in April of 2012 ordered the LCWR to place itself under the authority of three bishops. Now about 800 leaders from LCWR have gathered in Rome to meet and, presumably, respond.

Wirtz characterizes the meeting as an opportunity for reflection.

The concept of power of this world, as Jesus refers to it, of our governments and all that, is so often the power of oppression or putting down people or abusing power in many different ways. What we’re trying to reflect on is ‘What is the good aspect of power?’
…when we use power in the right sense, we can influence others and that influence itself is power. We’re sometimes afraid as religious to use that word, and yet I think in the very communal way in which we go about our ministries and service, that is a power.
We have the power to influence many, many people — through what we do and through our service, without us focusing on that as an end in itself, but as through that service.
…we need to continually look at how do we use our power. Because it is something that others will view, others will see, and it’s a model for them also.

She goes on to talk about the “prayerful dialogic manner” in which the sisters are approaching their upcoming session with the representative of the Vatican. She hopes that their manner will set the tone and example.

If LCWR can truly open a dialogic stance with CDF [the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] for instance and bring clarity because of openness on both sides of the dialogue, I think that would be wonderful. I think that’s what they’re hoping for.
I hope…we can model what true dialogue is, that we can model that in such a way that it helps those on the other side — in other words, the Vatican side — to understand what we mean by dialogue.
That it is a mutual sharing by both sides of information, of whatever is on their minds — that there can be that kind of mutual openness to hear one another. That isn’t always felt at this time.
They’re [LCWR] being slow in the process, hoping that through taking the time and patience that the possibility for better dialogue can truly unfold.

Where have they found patience and, even, hope? According to Sister Wirtz, it comes from dialogue among themselves, “struggling with questions,” and “a deep inner struggle.” That struggle is generative, to borrow a word Sister Wirtz uses when talking about the biblical story of Esther. Esther is “a very rich image” for the women leaders gathered in Rome, says Wirtz, “even though we do not bear children.” In trying to model the practice, the behavior, the attitudes that they want to see and inspire in others, they are exercising and sharing their own power and creating new possibilites for others, a new order, a new model of power itself. “We bear life,” she says, “through what we pass on to others and how we serve others.”

Postscript: According to my WordPress stats, this post gets a lot of traffic, much more than I ever imagined it would when I wrote it. The search terms that bring people here almost sound like something out of a classroom assignment — “discuss non-coercive power” “what is non-coercive power?” and so on — and I suspect some of these visitors are trying to crib an answer to an incredibly complex and difficult question. There is much more to the subject than this one example suggests. Those who are looking for more than a quick hit might want to read the posts I’ve written on asking.