Coach mentor and author Stephen Barden introduces this podcast series,
"The Power of Balance". In this first episode he argues that the childhood assumption we form about the power balance we hold with our worlds, affects every aspect of our lives. Understanding this, begins to open a door on why we do the things we do.
"Having insight into why our leaders behave as they do is only half the issue; understanding why we elect them is probably much more important.
Understanding why our bosses tell us to do things at work which we’d never even consider doing in our families and communities is one thing; understanding why we actually go ahead and do them is another."
This is a series about power, and why it and more importantly, what we have learned to believe about our relationship with it affects every aspect of our daily lives. I'm Steven Barden and I've spent most of my working life with power, and leadership. I'm a coach-mentor of leaders, and I used to be a corporate leader at one stage.
My late in life doctorate was in how successful leaders manage power. And my book due out in December 2020, is called 'How Successful Leaders Do Business With Their World', which, of course, is also about power. So, Episode One, let's talk about power.
We deal with and talk about power every day. Most of the time, it's about power over, whether somebody or something has less or more power than we have. Whether the government has the power to arbitrarily lock us down, whether the boss has the power to force us to do something we don't want to do.
But power comes into play when we're not even aware of it, not just when the hospital says we really do need to keep you in for more tests, or the president or prime minister says COVID-19 is or is not a massive issue.
But also those everyday incidents, like how you feel when an overly boisterous bunch of kids gets on your carriage on the train, or when a driver changes lane in front of you, without indicating. They're all about power too.
And until we understand that, and until we understand our own assumptions about our own power, we'll be half-blind in our relationships. We'll assume that every noisy kid is deliberately disrespecting us, or that the doctor is always right or always wrong.
So let's talk about power.
On its own power is the capacity to do, to act, to move.
And where there are no obstacles or even relationships, that's fine, pure power, simply doing.
But all beings are in a relationship, not only with other beings but with their world, their worlds, their context
and that ability to act then starts to depend on not only our energy, but also on our relationships with our world, with other beings, with the terrain, the climate, and so on.
And here lies another factor of power, and probably the most important; we relate to our world not according to an absolute reality but according to our experience of that world.
In other words, our ability to act, to do in the world, is regulated by what we have learned to assume is the nature of our relationship with our world. It's a bit like ballroom dancers on a dance floor,
your ability to move is going to be affected by the number of other dancers on that floor.
And if everyone is doing their bit and gliding around, then everything should go smoothly, and nobody bumps into anybody else. However, if you see one couple start to knock into other dancers, you might start getting a little alert and avoid them. But gradually, you notice that a lot of couples, the majority, in fact, are jostling and forcing the rest of you into a corner of the room.
Now, your ability to dance, to do, becomes even more constrained, and at some stage, you need to take action if you want to carry on dancing. And that's where assumptions come into play. And as you'll see, it's ultimately about power.
You could assume that what's happened is that a majority of dancers have decided to push the others into a corner of the room, deliberately, so that they have a bigger space or force the minority to dance badly for the judges say. Or you could assume that the disruption happened when that original duo deliberately or accidentally bumped into another couple setting off a chain reaction that resulted in everybody being off-kilter. So you could either assume that a majority of your fellow dancers are working against you, or that the dance floor as a result of a minor incident is out
of balance temporarily.
In the first assumption, you're fighting against a superior power, the majority. And the latter, you and your fellow dancers are in it together, you're all out of balance.
In the former, your choices are: you either have to get out of the room, or you push back, or you surrender and huddle in the corner. In the latter: you may decide to get off the dance floor and encourage others to do so as well until things settle down. Or you may even move to the less crowded ends of the dance floor so that things can even out. And you might, if it's clear to you that the original couple were being deliberately disruptive, ask them to leave.
In the former, you're in conflict. In the latter, you manage. In the former, you assume the balance of power is against you. In the latter, you assume that you and the world are in a manageable equilibrium.
So, what we assume about our power relationship with the world has a direct effect on the way we manage it. It wasn't the intention of the couple that change the way we dealt with it. After all, that original couple may well have started the chaos deliberately, it was our assumption about the power balance.
So how do we arrive at these assumptions on power? Do we really look at the evidence on each occasion and reach a reasonable conclusion? Or do we come to the table strongly influenced by an overriding belief?
I conducted an academic research study over four years, and then expanded it in my practice, as well as in a book to be published in 2020. And that study showed that at a very early age we build an all-purpose assumption about the power relationship we have with our world, and therefore, about how we can deal with it. Do business with it.
Very briefly, through their explorations and interactions with their parents, their families, peers, and communities children progressively build up a blanket assumption about how much space they can make for themselves. What they can and can't do, in and with their world. In other words, they build up an assumption about the balance of power between themselves and their world.
Put very simplistically, they come to the conclusion along the spectrum that ranges from "whatever I do, my world always has the upper hand", "I have less power than it has", "I have no power all", or right at the other end, "I can do what I want, I have more power than my world, I am all-powerful."
Or "I can work with this world of mine, I can do business with it. And if I partner with it, we're reasonably balanced." There's your spectrum.
And of course, they learn to behave differently according to that underlying assumption.
If your assumption tells you that you will always lose against the world, then you're either going to try and beat it or surrender, or even avoid it altogether.
If you believe that you can do anything you like, you will eventually discover that to be untrue. The world will inevitably in the form of someone or something get in your way.
But of course, your assumption will still insist that you really do have more power and that the blockage is an anomaly.
So you will see this as a conflict and will try to make sure that that uppety world will never try that again. You will, in other words, compete fiercely against it. So both of these assumptions of imbalance, "I have less power", "I have more power" mean that you will see the world in opposition to you. It's not your partner, it's at best your victim, and at worst your oppressor.
So, where your assumption is that you and the world have a reasonable power balance, you'll know that the best way to behave is to partner with it, work with it. Anything else would be a waste of time and energy. Why would I oppose it or manipulate it when I can just work with it? And, in fact, the combination may be even more powerful.
Understanding what assumption forms the way people around us look at the world and therefore it us is crucial. If we're going to effectively and wisely manage our relationships with our children, our peers and our leaders. And I believe it'll give us, as well, really valuable insights into how our culture's become dominated by particular worldviews. And I'll talk about that a little later.
But equally vital, if not also, is that we start by understanding what our own fundamental assumption is. having insight into why our leaders behave as they do is only half the issue, understanding why we elect them is probably much more important. Understanding why our bosses tell us to do things at work, which we never even dream of doing in our families and communities is one thing. Understanding why we actually go ahead and do them is another.
In short, understanding why we, not just they, not just the others, not just our political, civic, institutional, and business leaders, but we, abuse power. Why so many of us align with those whom we think will favour our own narrow interests rather than those of the entire country, city or institution goes right back to that fundamental assumption about what power balance we think we hold with the world, and therefore whether we are in opposition to it, or whether we can partner with it.
Einstein is reputed to have said later in his life, I think the most important question facing humanity is, "is the universe a friendly place?" This, he said, is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.
Why did he think that?
I believe because if the universe is your opponent, you will build up defenses and weapons to control it or keep it at bay, and eventually, you will destroy it and it you. And if you think it's friendly, your partner, you will work to preserve it, so that you can flourish together.
The fundamental assumption of a power relationship with the world may start with the individual. But as I said earlier, we don't live in this world simply as individuals. Corporations, institutions, and countries develop this assumption as well and they too need to understand where they come from.
Dr Sarah Kaplan and her 2020 book on stakeholder management, 'The 360-degree Corporation' insists that before corporations can even begin to transform themselves, they need to very clearly understand what their business model is, how and from where they make their money, in detail. Because only in that way, will they understand who are the winners and losers, and only in that way, will the corporation understand the risks and opportunities at faces, and where and how it needs to change. That to is about the balance of power.
If a corporation assumes its main source of income is from selling cheap food or clothes in very high volumes, and in order to do so it uses its power to squeeze its supplies, it may find that the quality of product or service suffers so much that it leads to its consumers going elsewhere.
Similarly, if a country or its political rulers assumes that it and the world do not hold a balance of power, a reasonable one, it will see that the world is at opposition. For a country, that world is both internal, its own people, and external other countries.
So it needs to ask how was it formed? How was that nation formed? What foundational assumptions were present when it became a nation? Was it an immigrant nation fleeing oppressors? In which case, have they transferred their imbalance, their assumption of imbalance, to their new country? Do they now see the world as future oppressors, as the unfriendly universe? Do they see sections of their own society as the opposition?
If the business model of the United States, Britain, of Brazil, was at a very crucial part of their history the use of widespread slavery to achieve maximum profits at minimum labour costs then, like it or not, at some level, there is a fundamental assumption of a profound imbalance of power. That the exploitation of some of their people for wealth is justified and that assumption burns into the exploiter as well as the exploited and
the descendants of the exploited. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his book 'Between The World and Me' "to be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape and disease.
The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology, the nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy. The predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear. The law did not protect us."
The lesson is, assumptions of power are pervasive. And they go on for a very, very long time unless we expose them for what they are. Suppositions made by individuals, institutions, or even nations in their formative years, to make their way in a world that they had yet to truly experience which they then failed to move beyond, to relearn.
So in this series, I'll be talking about how our assumptions of the balance of power between us and our world affects all our relationships. My purpose is not to uncover old bones but to hopefully help us all to find ways to better manage ourselves in our world. At work, in the family at the polling booth, in hospital, at the supermarket, or when we ourselves have power because here's the good news, those assumptions are learned and what is learned can be unlearnt.
I'll be drawing on much of my own research, as well as the book that I've written on the subject but I will also be talking to others. Leaders, writers, victims, and victimizers
and I will ask all of them the same opening question
"For you, is your universe friendly?"