From Nonviolence to ServiceLeadership in Miki Kashtan’s Reweaving our Human FabricI have never been comfortable with leadership. Nonetheless, there I was leading a five-day retreat with twenty-something seasoned leaders, activists, counselors, and other people more qualified than I was to lead it. On day four it cracked. Diverse expressions of a seething dissatisfaction rose to the surface – a cacophony of unmet needs.
Many of them seemed contradictory: some wanted more embodiment; others more deep intellectual discussion or more on practical applications. Some requested more structure and leadership from me; others wanted less from me and more from other people. One person said that she felt to even impose a structure upon a group, and take it upon myself to administer that structure, was an inherently violent expression of patriarchy. Another was in anguish that as we sat in that room, rainforests were being cut down – and what are we doing about it?
I won’t pretend that I masterfully held space for all the conflict to arise, for the hidden to become visible, for the group to pass through that inevitable stage that precedes real intimacy. The best I can say is that listened to everyone without getting defensive, and tried on each criticism like a piece of clothing. But I had no idea what to say, who was right, or what to do next.
Notwithstanding my having no idea what to do, something larger than any of us held us all in its hands. After the storm passed, we entered an activity that took on a transformative power I’d never seen it have before. I felt like the servant of that activity, not its leader, even as I “led” it. Afterward, the conflicts that had come up before it felt resolved, even though none had been met directly.Significantly, that activity never would have happened at all were it not for a stroke of extraordinary luck, that contributed to my feeling of being held by something larger than our separate selves. At a key moment, a woman who had been mostly silent said, “I see a lot of egos flying around the room. I came here to spend time with Charles and I trust him to offer what is right.” She spoke with a simple humility that totally shifted the energy of the room. This woman had actually walked out, intending to go home, but by chance encountered one of the organizers who at that exact moment was cut off from an urgent phone call and was thus able to encourage her to return and share her opinion.
I recount this story because it illuminates and personalizes some of the themes of Miki Kashtan’s upcoming book, Reweaving our Human Fabric, which I’d been asked to review. One of these themes is the issue of power and how it is mediated through organizational structures. Kashtan, who is a prominent figure in the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) movement founded by Marshall Rosenberg, questions certain values that have had long vogue in the nonviolent world: non-hierarchy, leaderlessness, egalitarianism, and radical inclusivity. In a provocative chapter entitled “Myths of Power-with,” she describes the frustration of activist groups that devolve into endless meetings devoted to “process,” attending to the needs of everyone in the group, but getting very little accomplished. The group or movement is very fair, inclusive, and egalitarian, but fails to achieve any concrete external goals. Is there a way to replicate the efficiency and effectiveness of, say, business organizations (or for that matter, the hierarchical, leader-driven movements of Gandhi and MLK), without replicating the abuses that seem inherent in that mode of organization?
The deficiencies of the leaderless, structureless ideal became apparent a long time ago in the feminist movement which, drawing on earlier roots in left political theory, explored various alternatives to the “patriarchal” norm. The results were often disappointing. As Jo Freeman described so precisely in her classic essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” what masquerades as egalitarian collaboration often hides informal power dynamics that are all the more oppressive for being hidden. This became quickly apparent in the breakdown phase of that day at my retreat, when, at the moment that the leader was toppled, it was the loudest and most manipulative personalities that quickly began to take charge. No agreed upon power structure was in place, yet the quiet people felt no more empowered – perhaps even less so – than they had before.”