The power of acting powerfully from the bottom or the top of any system

As a facilitator, I am always interested in how people relate to each other, and how those relationships affect what they are able to accomplish. I spent years working in various capacities in community groups and sometimes in elected office, and it always surprised me how much feelings affected the group’s work.
Once a neighbor persuaded me to get involved in a local sports club, saying it needed my particular skills. My daughters were part of the club, and so I eventually did get involved. But then my neighbor, and several of his friends within the club, didn’t like what I was doing and set out to disrupt it. The result, of course, was to disrupt the work of the organization as a whole, even though their attacks focused on me. So I never underestimate how much a person’s perceptions of others affect what happens when a group is trying to carry out a particular goal, and especially how much peoples’ perceptions of other people’s power – real or imagined – affect the relationships that are so vital in making a group’s accomplishments possible.
What surprised me immensely, in reading reviews of Robert Caro’s latest volume in his biography of Lyndon Johnson, was to learn that this same phenomenon happens at the top of systems, affecting matters far more weighty than the yearly program of a sports club in a small and remote community.

Left out of power
Johnson came from the southern US, at a time when southern politicians were not in positions of power nationally within his party. He had years of experience in working within the legislative system in Washington; he knew how to get things done. But the politics of the time meant he could never hope to become his party’s presidential nominee, and so he agreed to become the vice presidential running mate to the younger and seemingly more charismatic John F. Kennedy.
He was not, however, trusted by the presidential inner circle. He was left out of meetings, and took to walking by the Oval Office just to show he was still there. His advice was not sought. When JFK was shot in Dallas, he waited alone at the hospital for an hour or so before he was given information. Given his knowledge of the political system, however, he quickly took on the responsibility of making decisions as he flew back to Washington. And as quickly, he began introducing some of the most innovative legislative changes made in decades, despite working with a reluctant Congress and against the advice of many advisors who feared it would cost him ‘political capital’ – the 1964 Civil Rights Act, action on poverty, voting rights, Head Start and Medicare and Medicaid.
In a review of the book, Bill Clinton notes the political genius that Johnson demonstrated – his ability to persuade almost anyone to go along with what he was proposing. But he also notes the difficult years when Johnson was left outside the trusted presidential circle, without power or influence, and that is particularly the part that intrigued me.

Making good decisions
One likes to think that powerful people, like the presidents and prime ministers of countries, have the ability to work with people from a variety of backgrounds and ways of thinking, in order to make the best decisions possible. Facilitators know that, difficult as this may be to do, the best decisions result when one takes into account a variety of points of view, including the ones that don’t agree with your own. Forming a closed circle, and leaving out others you don’t agree with, is not a recipe for good decision-making, even if it may seem easier.
So I began to wonder what might have happened had Kennedy treated Johnson as a partner in the presidency. What could they have accomplished together for their country, had they found a way to work past the mutual distrust, given their individual capacities and skills and knowledge?
Building this kind of trust at the top of systems is very challenging, of course. When Barry Oshry studied systems, he found that in every group, there are people at different levels – the top, the middle, and the bottom. Each has different challenges to face, but they don’t see that clearly from their place in the system. The people at the top tend to think of themselves primarily as individuals, rather than as members of a group, and they tend to react to and against what their peers – the other elite – think and say. As a result, they may tend to draw less on the knowledge of the whole group and more on their own knowledge, which – however great it may be – is always limited in some way or the other.

Learning each other’s stories
Oshry learned that one way to work within such systems, within organizations, is to make it possible for people at each level to hear each other. Without such an opportunity, people tend to make up stories about others based on how they interpret other people’s actions. They might think, for example, that people at the top are uncaring, people at the bottom lack initiative, and people in the middle are indecisive. When they are able to share their stories and perceptions, however, it becomes possible to find a way forward that draws on the abilities of people at all levels in the system.
People at the top of any system face many challenges. People expect them to make decisions; expect them to take responsibility for the whole system; and expect them to be knowledgeable about the whole system. Because they are seen as so powerful, it can be hard for them to find people they trust to give them good advice. Because people expect them to act powerfully, it can be hard for them to admit that they don’t know what to do about a particular problem. Being seen as vulnerable can make them vulnerable to others who want their power, especially if their country seems fragile.
And yet, it is those people at the top of systems who make so many of the decisions that affect everyone else within the system. When powerful people, who have been opponents, find a way to work together at the top of any system, powerful legislation can be passed and wars can end and peacebuilding begin.
This is what made it possible to develop and implement a peace agreement in Northern Ireland. Yesterday I read that Joyce Banda, in Malawi, has brought together a cabinet made of up key leaders including some former opponents, and explained that they all needed to work together for the good of the country. This takes courage, and vision, and possibly the insight that comes from having been – like Lyndon Johnson – in a position that may have seemed powerful but was actually not so.
Let us encourage this kind of emotional intelligence when it is demonstrated by our country’s leaders and by those of other countries, by honouring their courage and vision and insight. If we do that, even if we think we are at the bottom of the system, we will ourselves be acting powerfully.

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