‘POWER’ & ‘CORRUPTION’

Greenleaf writes: I have no definite view of power to offer…  I grant that in an imperfect world, some raw use of power will always be with us.  But as ours has become a huge, complex, institution-bound society, power seems more of an issue than it was in simpler times when it was easier to identify where coercive pressures came from. 

Also within the past 200 years, the damage to power wielders has been clearly signaled…  William Pitt in 1770: “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it;” and, then in the late 19th century, Lord Acton’s more quoted line, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” 

…And what is the corruption that both Pitt and Acton might have had in mind?  I believe it is arrogance, and all of the disabilities that follow in the wake of arrogance.

Arrogance = an offensive display of self-importance rooted in overbearing pride; hubris.

I am reminded of the first lesson – of the four lessons of history: Whom the gods will destroy, they first make mad with power.

Consider that a leader is tempted to become arrogant when a necessary balance is removed.  The necessary balance involves a balance between ‘support and accountability.’  A leader is tempted to become arrogant when ‘accountability’ is minimized or removed – when the leader is always supported (think: ‘yes’ people surrounding the leader).  Who is charged with holding the leader accountable?  Who has the courage to do so?  How does a leader create the safe environment necessary for the other(s) to hold the leader accountable?  How does the leader help the other(s) develop the capacity to hold the leader accountable?  How does the leader develop his or her own capacity to be willing to be held accountable by the other(s)?  What are the agreements that must be in place in order for the other(s) to hold the leader accountable and for the leader to accept being held accountable by the other(s)? 

What are the beliefs, values, assumptions, disciplines and attitudes that the leader must integrate in order to be open to being held accountable by the other(s)?  What are the beliefs, values, assumptions, disciplines and attitudes that the other(s) must hold in order to hold the leader accountable?  ‘Good people’ – whether the leader or the other(s) – do not hold one another accountable simply because they are ‘good people.’ 

In what ways does the leader hold the other(s) accountable for ‘holding the leader accountable’?  Who defines the ‘what’ as in: ‘What must the leader be held accountable for?’  Who defines the ‘accountability-process’ that must be implemented in order to ensure that the leader is, indeed, being accountable? 

In one sense ‘Power’ is easy to define: ‘Power is one’s ability to act’ (unabridged dictionary’s first definition).  However the definition becomes a bit more complex is we seek to define ‘Ethical Power.’  Consider this definition: ‘Ethical Power is one’s ability to act rooted in moral reflection.’  So, will a leader seek to be held accountable or will the leader seek to be held to be ‘ethically and morally accountable’? 

How many leaders are willing to spend the time, energy and resources in order to respond to these – and other – questions?  How many leaders actually invite others to help them reflectively respond to these – and other – questions?    

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GREENLEAF UPS THE ANTE, PART II. . .

This morning, gentle reader, we will explore a bit more deeply Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 94’ and see how our exploration might inform Greenleaf’s words (see PART I) about ‘doing no harm.’  First, here is Shakespeare’s sonnet.

SONNET 94

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed out-braves his dignity;
   For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
   Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

My undergraduate degree is in English Literature and I first read and studied this sonnet in 1964 – I was a student in Professor Robinson’s class; he was a Shakespearean Scholar (he lived and breathed the bard).  Sonnet 94 is one of Shakespeare’s most challenging sonnets (perhaps it is his most challenging sonnet). 

Greenleaf writes about the servant who has the power to harm and chooses not to harm.  In Sonnet 94 Shakespeare refers to a certain type of person who has great power and yet this person chooses not to use his power to harm.  Context becomes important at this point.

The most powerful people during Shakespeare’s life were English Royalty and Shakespeare walked a thin line between flattering the Royals, criticizing them or making fun of them.  Shakespeare was a ‘walking-the-thin line-master’ when it came to his plays and poems.   

The first eight lines of this challenging sonnet are devoted to the description of a certain kind of impressive, restrained group of Royals: “They that have power to hurt” and do not use that power. These particular Royals seem not to do the thing they are able to do – they ‘do not do the thing they most do show’ – their ‘power.’ They ‘show’ power – they have a power to harm and choose to demonstrate great restraint by not exercising their power to harm.  They remain ‘as stone’ – they are slow to feel the temptation to do harm.  Royals such as these, the poet says, inherit “heaven’s graces” and protect the riches of nature from expenditure.  The ‘riches of nature’ include all life forms – they use their power to ‘protect’ all life forms, not to harm.  At their best, they are “the lords and owners of their faces,” completely in control of themselves. Other folks can only hope to steward a part of their “excellence.”

The next four lines undergo a remarkable shift, as the speaker turns from his description of those that “have power to hurt and will do none” to a look at a flower in the summer. Shakespeare says that the summer may treasure its flower (it is “to the summer sweet”) even if the flower itself does not feel terribly cognizant of its own importance (“to itself it only live and die”). But if the flower becomes sick—if it meets with a “base infection”—then it becomes more repulsive and less dignified than the “basest weed.”

In the couplet (that is, the final two lines of the poem), the speaker observes that it is behavior that determines the worth of a person or a thing: sweet things which behave badly turn sour, just as a flower that festers smells worse than a weed. 

For Greenleaf, the servant, just like the Royal, can choose not to exercise his or her power – to do no harm.  Also, like the Royal, the servant can embrace a ‘base infection’ and ‘fester’ and do more harm than the worst weed.  Greenleaf’s paradox of ‘good and evil’ comes into play – at our healthiest, Greenleaf reminds us over and over each one of us is both ‘good and evil’ (or light and darkness or virtue and vice). 

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GREENLEAF UPS THE ANTE, PART I. . .

Greenleaf writes: I realize that in adding to the definition of servant the admonition, ‘no one will knowingly be hurt,’ some people who might otherwise think of themselves as servants (as I have defined it) will reject that identification…  In an imperfect world, some will continue to be hurt, as they always have been.  I know that, in the course of my life, I have caused some hurt.  But, as my concern for servanthood has evolved, the scars from these incidents are more prominent in my memory and self-questioning is sharper.  Could I have been more aware, more patient, more gentle, more forgiving, more skillful?  The intent of the servant, as I see that person now, is that, as a result of any action she or he initiates, no one will knowingly be hurt…

It all reminds me of that powerful line with which Shakespeare opens his 94th Sonnet:

They that have power to hurt and will do none.

Not very little, but none!  This is the sonnet that concludes with those caustic lines:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;

Lilies that fester small far worse than weeds.

The firm aim of the servant is that no one will be hurt.

Once again, as is his wont, Greenleaf ups the ante.  In 1980, more than ten years after he first provided us with his ‘Best Test’ for the servant, he adds a line at the end of the test: No one will knowingly be hurt.  How is this possible?  Well, he notes in the passage above that ‘In an imperfect world’ servants will harm others.  Since ours is an imperfect world, servants will harm others (and will harm themselves). 

Perhaps if the one espousing to be servant-first (by first or second nature) holds an intention while striving to do no harm is what is important.  Each servant-first can strive to be more aware, to be more patient, to be gentler, to be more forgiving and to be more skillful (to reiterate Greenleaf’s list).  Each servant-first can emerge his or her own lists of ‘more.’  In his writings, Greenleaf often holds up to us the ‘ideal’ (his word); perhaps this is another ideal he is holding up to us. 

On the other hand, he seems quite insistent.  In his insistence he offers us Shakespeare’s 94th sonnet to reflect upon.  Here is Shakespeare’s sonnet in its entirety. 

SONNET 94

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed out-braves his dignity;
   For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
   Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

[to be continued…]

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THIS IS WHERE I STAND!

In his writings Greenleaf emphasizes the need for the servant to employ the art of persuasion more than coercion or manipulation.  In his essay, ‘Servant: Retrospect & Prospect’ (1980) Greenleaf defines ‘Persuasion.’ 

Greenleaf writes: One is persuaded, I believe, on arrival at a feeling of rightness about a belief or action through one’s own intuitive sense – checked, perhaps, by others’ intuitive judgment, but, in the end, one relies on one’s own intuitive sense.  One takes that intuitive step, from the closest approximation to certainty one can reach by conscious logic (sometimes not very close), to that state in which one may say with conviction, ‘This is where I stand!’  The act of persuasion will help order the logic and favor the intuitive step.  And this takes time!  The one being persuaded must take that intuitive step alone, untrammeled by coercion or manipulative stratagems.  Both leader and follower respect the integrity and allow the autonomy of the other and each encourages the other to find her or his own intuitive confirmation of the rightness of the belief or action. 

As I reflect this morning on Greenleaf’s words, I am reminded of Diana Trilling’s powerful question – ‘This is the unresolved question… Where do I belong? And what price do I pay for where I choose to stand?’  Greenleaf believes that one’s response to these questions is rooted in a ‘feeling of rightness’ and this ‘feeling’ is rooted in ‘one’s own intuitive sense.’  Logic is employed AND yet ‘feeling’ and ‘intuition’ are the final determiners. 

‘Conscious logic’ helps and it is not the final determiner; ‘one’s intuitive sense’ is the final determiner.  Greenleaf’s idea supports the ongoing research that continues to confirm that we humans, by nature, are first ‘emotional’ beings, we are not, by nature, rational beings.  Our rational capacities have evolved over time and our rational capacities are often trumped by our emotions.  One can confirm this by watching the rallies of those seeking to be our next elected official and by listening to the rhetoric of the candidates themselves.  Emotions trump logic, again and again and again.

The ‘rallies’ also confirm that the emotions of the crowd will trump the rational thinking of the individual and of the group.  Reinhold Niebuhr attempted to teach us about this phenomena in 1932 when he wrote his powerful book: ‘Moral Man and Immoral Society.’  The logical, moral man will cave, over and over again, when he or she is embedded in the emotionally driven group (think: political rally).  Hitler played to this reality and a nation followed.  Those who are seeking to be our next elected official will also be playing to the emotions of the crowd and are they will do so with great success. 

All of this loops me back to both Greenleaf and Trilling.  What will it take for me to say with conviction: This is where I choose to stand!  AND… I am willing to pay the price for standing here! 

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PRUDENCE COMES TO MIND…

Greenleaf writes: We but dimly understand the forces that open and close people to liberating visions.  The word prudence comes to mind.  We should try to change with a minimum of threat of damage to stability…  If stability is significantly lowered or lost, no matter how noble the end sought, the cost in human suffering may be inordinate.  When an imprudent effort toward change, one in which the liberating vision is not sufficiently compelling and benign in intent, may make it more difficult for a later prudent effort to succeed, reformers take note: in the end, most people choose order – even if it is delivered to them by brutal non-servants.  The ultimate choice of order is one of the most predictable mind-sets because it is a first condition of a civilized society.  …there is remarkable consistency between the common dilemmas in ancient times and ours.  …there has been failure to give sufficiently powerful liberating visions…  And because of that, the threat of perishing is always with us. 

Prudence = acting with discretion; being cautious.   Greenleaf is consistent.  As a ‘gradualist’ he is committed to being prudent.  When it comes, then, to any organized group seeking to change (think: board of directors, institution, society) Greenleaf calls for prudence.  The challenge: How to maintain significant stability WHILE engaging in a process resulting in shifts, changes or transformations?

Greenleaf also reminds us that for ages and ages organized groups have failed to provide its members with sufficiently powerful liberating visions.  This type of vision will help provide the motivation to maintain (think: keep things stable) while supporting a process of experimentation.  If both are done well then, over time, a ‘third way’ will emerge.  This third way will contain some of the ‘old’ (think: some of the ‘stable’) and some of the ‘new’ (think: some of the ‘experimentation’).  This also means that the organized group will have to decide to ‘let go’ of some of the ‘old’ and some of the ‘experimentation’ in order to embrace and integrate some of both and in order for a ‘third way’ to emerge and become integrated.

Greenleaf also cautions us.  Historically, if an organized group concludes that its ‘identity’ (think: stability) is being threatened by imprudent shifts, changes or transformations that the group will be open to a ‘brutal non-servant’ who will promise them ‘order.’  And organized groups that believe that their ‘identity’ is being threatened will embrace ‘order’ even if it is rooted in brutality (think: Germany during the 1930s). 

Any organized group wants to be ‘stable’ and wants to be ‘ordered’ (it seems that we humans do not like confusion and chaos and complexity and ambiguity; we certainly do not like to feel ‘threatened’ nor do we like to be ‘fear-full’).   Learning to embrace and engage the paradox of maintaining and experimenting is a challenge that requires prudence. 

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