Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Being in Charge

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 05, 2005

I think a lot about power.

Today I was reading an article from Fast Company about Commander D. Michael Abrashoff of the USS Benford. The author stressed two things: first, that Abrashoff was able to lead effectively because he no longer cared about personal ambition - "I don't care if I ever get promoted again" - and because he talks with, and listens to, his men.

This week, of course, the Pope dies. The Pope was another man in command. I don't know what his level of personal ambition was - once you've advanced to Pope, there isn't really any higher office that doesn't involve heresy. I don't know whether he listened, either, though I suspect he must have, as his rule appears to have been as loved as it was long.

I tell people - with some accuracy, which I'll get back to - that I don't care whether I get promoted again either. In a strict sense, this is true. In my position there are various levels of research officer - I am a senior research officer, and could eventually become a principle research officer if I study hard and please my seniors. I was hired, and have been promoted, on the basis of a grid of competencies. It's all pretty obvious, and leadership is right up there as one of the desired competencies.

So looking at the criteria, I see that to be a principle researcher, I need to be a person of world-wide renown, a person of influence in the field, you know. As I look at the names of those who would qualify for such status and it seems to me that what distinguishes those who are leaders in the field and those who, though equally insightful, are not, is that the former have people.

Now that's not the whole of it, of course. These leaders in the field have other attributes that have put them where they are, just as did Commander Abrashoff and Pope John Paul. But somewhere along the line, they got people - and it was enough to push them over the top. And so these leaders in the field have somehow acquired a research lab, a bunch of graduate assistants, some personal staff, whatever - and of course their output increases, their effectiveness increases, they become superhuman.

And it occurs to me that all of this talk misses the point a bit. I mean, it's pretty easy to be sanguine about advancement when you are already a Commander or a Pope. Had I adopted that attitude at the outset of my career I would have remained a stock boy for the rest of my days. And that talk about listening to your men - well, that's a lot easier - indeed, possible even - only if you have men.

And I don't have people. I thought I would have people, I really did, when I took my position three years ago. It was something I looked forward to, a way to advance my career. because before I became a senior researcher I wanted to advance my career. Before this position I was in a contract position, which meant that I either advanced my career or I became unemployed. But now I am here, and not wanting to advance my career - and yet, I have no people.

What kind of leadership is that? And I suppose, if I ever wanted to become a principle researcher, I would have to acquire people - because that is, isn't it, the essence of leadership, having people? But I suddenly find it impossible to put the acquisition of people above what's important to me, to engage in whatever it takes to acquire people.

It's not like I haven't had people in the past. I have tasted the salt spray of the Commander's post, not of a warship, to be sure, but as a (student) newspaper editor, as a graduate student president, as the leader of a major protest, as the force behind a litigation. I know what having people is like - and I liked it. I liked it just as I liked having the dream that Commander Abrashoff had, of being in command, of being Captain Kirk, of having the power to control destinies with a gesture, a nod...

I mean, what boy doesn't have such dreams? What boy doesn't dream of being the captain, being the quarterback, being Prime Minister? And what is it when we abandon such dreams - being on the team, I guess, is sufficient to explain why we settle for being a lieutenant, being a linebacker, being a Minister of Finance. Oh, but I guess it eats at you - for some people, becomes a failure that they cannot get past, for others, becomes a substandard life to which they will learn, eventually, to accept. Not everybody, after all, can have people - because then there would be no people (the beauty of the hierarchy is that it allows more people to have people - but at the cost of whatever it was you would have wanted to have people for, because now you and your people are all someone else's people - and he's advancing his career).

So now I work alone. On the bottom rung of the organization chart. I don't have people because I'm not willing to make that trade - to give up what's important to me in order to be given people. The flip side, of course, is that I don't want to be people either. It's not simply that I don't want to be the quarterback - I'm not willing to settle for being a linebacker either.

So was thinking about all this today as I read Fast Company and watched coverage of the Pope and listened to stories of the Gomrie enquiry and our aspirational Prime Minister and grumbled about the tightening grip of my employers, thinking about this and I asked myself, what changed? It wasn't so long ago that I wanted people - and while I haven't lost my ambition, my drive, my desire to make a difference, I don't want people any more. And it's not just the cost of getting people, it's more than that.

And it seems to me - there's something fundamentally dishonest about the whole thing. I mean, if the Pope didn't have his minions, if the Commander didn't have his crew, they'd be pretty fine fellas but they'd be ordinary, wouldn't they? And so the other shoe drops - having people isn't only about getting other people to do what you want, it is also about getting the credit for their work. It's some kind of sanitized, socially sanctioned, but out-and-out plagiarism. And when you look at the professor with his minions of graduate students, that's what it is, isn't it?

And I realized that it is that that I couldn't do. I couldn't ask someone else to give up their own dreams of being Captain Kirk just so I could run my own ship.

It's hard for me to realize this.

I mean, the whole idea of having people is built into the very concepts of excellent and advancement that we aspire to. I read a lot of business books (hard to believe, I know - many of them are a fifteen minute read in a bookstore, but I studied Carnegie line by line, read a number of Peters, more..). And they are all, to the last one, about having people - how to get them, how to convince them to adopt your vision, how to motivate them, how to control them, sometimes how to trade them for better people.

It is so deeply ingrained, this idea that without people you have somehow failed. Socialists try to get people by finding some sort of common good; capitalists try to get people by paying them, fascists try to get people by threatening them (and killing some) - even anarchists have people, though they lie about it and say they don't. The loneliest, saddest people in the world are people who don't have people - and if you can't have people, then you should at least be a people, in order to have some meaning in your life. And, of course, we are all God's people, serving His will, whatever that may be. Right?

How can I be a leader without people? How can I be a success without people? How, even, can my life have meaning without people?

And I realize - what I have been doing over the last ten years (mostly because I had to) is reframing what I mean by success,what I mean by leadership, what I mean by meaning. Reframing it in the sense that being in charge is in and of itself of no inherent value. That the people who are currently in charge are in no way anything special, they are just for the most part people with - and taking the credit for - their own people. And that they have, in fact, sacrificed their humanity in order to achieve this status.

Forget what you learned about leadership.

What you need to know is that people who are leaders, the higher they get, are less and less likely to have any set of values worth having, that they have probably already sacrificed anything that is important to them in order to achieve their status, and that the higher they go the more their naked ambition is eating them inside. How else do you explain the deals politicians make with advertisers and fundraisers? How else do you explain the sublimation of one's entire personality to an orthodoxy? How else do you explain what is, by any observation, the utter inhumanity of our leaders, those that the business books and biographies would have us believe are our best and brightest?

The only leadership worth having doesn't involve having people. The only advancement worth achieving has nothing to do with a hierarchy. The only meaning worth living for is the one that is born inside you, is evolved out of your own sense of right and good. It is the sense of areté, of being all that you can be (in the sense it have before it was corrupted as a military recruitment ad.

And - to me - the first step, the essential step - toward achieving this sort of self-fulfillment is to not deny it in others. To recognize, in each person, the capacity, the right, for them to determine their own destiny. To not have people. It's a hard, hard road - much harder, I submit, than being a Pope with his minions or the commander of a billion dollar warship.

Because - when I think about it - were Commander Abrashoff as sensitive and concerned about the needs and welfare of his men, of other people, then he wouldn't be commander of a warship. And if the Pope really believed in the inherent value of each and every person, he wouldn't be telling them to obey. And let me be clear - these are two individuals who have managed to in large measure transcend the corruption and the inhumanity of their positions. But not so much so that they were willing to abandon the gratification of being in charge, of realizing their boyhood dreams.

I still dream of being Captain Kirk. I always will; you cannot escape a lifetime of conditioning. But I will, one day, surface on the other side of that dream. A free man.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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