What’s My Piece of the Mess?

I once heard a would-be politician address a campaign rally with the following quip: Every time I point a finger at someone else, he said, I still have three fingers pointing back at me. He lost his election and I never heard of him again, but I never forgot the saying either. While not the most profound observation ever uttered, it “points” to something we should think about all year round and not just during election season.

One of the greatest leadership lessons I ever learned came from Martin Linsky, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Linsky taught me the importance of asking the simple question, “What’s your piece of the mess?” when confronting a challenging situation. Routinely asking this question in difficult circumstances does not automatically mean that I did something wrong. This is not a guilt trip masquerading as a leadership aphorism. But being able to contemplate my “piece of the mess,” compels me to consider the possibility that even when no obvious link exists between my behavior and the crisis at hand, there might be something more to think about.

Linsky’s insights continue to challenge me with every new revelation about the abuse of power manifesting itself in everything from business and politics to sexual improprieties. Dramatic as these cases are, most of us fail to see any connection between these high profile, celebrity cases and our own work. In large measure this is because we have conflated power and influence with rank and title. For those of us who hold no prominent positions, who lack notoriety or fame, it is easy to point the finger at others who abuse their power and think, “that has nothing to do with me … I would never … and besides, I don’t have any real power.”

The reality is that most of us in positions of leadership and responsibility have enormous power, even if we lack fancy titles and a corner office. Despite the fact that you may never think of yourself as powerful, if you sign a paycheck, write a reference, approve a vacation, hire or fire, recommend a promotion, conduct a personnel review, diagnose a patient, counsel a parishioner or keep the peace, you have power. And by virtue of that fact alone you are at increased risk of abusing your power. This is true not because you are evil, anti-social or some kind of deviant predator but because the very dynamic of holding power or exerting influence brings with it an increased risk of abuse. Notes Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University, “Whenever you have control over resources important to others – things like money and information” you have power. And whether that power is abused or not, holders of power are obligated to reflect on their own behaviors and ask themselves, “What’s my piece of the mess?”

After the victims have boldly stepped forward, it takes very little skill for the rest of us to condemn the abuse of power when a renown academic violates the sacred trust of her students, when a cleric exploits the love his congregants have for him, when a movie mogul, or journalist, or politico threatens negative consequences in the absence of sexual favors. These egregious cases are what helped shine a light on the bigger issue and can never be dismissed. But we miss the point if we think that abuse is relegated to the realm of the “rich and famous” alone.

It is ironic that individuals, rightly horrified at abuse of power on the celebrity level, fail to see the functional equivalent in their own actions. The incessant reliance on “position power,” for example, is a case in point To be sure, the executive who justifies every action by saying “because I’m the boss that’s why,” is not the same as a sexual predator. But if we fail to see the excesses that hide behind job titles, popularity, or outsized influence for what they are, namely abuse of power, we miss the larger point. If we dismiss the concerns of direct reports or manipulate the affection of students or congregants, or believe that our uniform or the window we stand behind entitles us to privileges not accorded to others, then we too are abusers of power, even as we’d be mortified to be compared to the high profile perpetrators dominating the news.

Abuse of power doesn’t always require an hierarchical relationship. You don’t need to be someone’s immediate supervisor to behave abusively, particularly when your power may derive from reputation, esteem or eminence. In fairness, many would suggest, that they never think of themselves as powerful. Middle managers, even CEOs, are hard-pressed to reflect on the trappings of their office, when what they really feel is overworked and under-appreciated.

The connection between leadership and the potential for abuse of power, however, cannot be ignored any longer. And, as I have tried to suggest, we must begin by demystifying that relationship. We can no longer accept the notion that only those with prominent positions abuse their powers. To avoid the untoward excesses frequently found among leaders, one must first be sensitized to the fact that exercising power brings with it an increased likelihood of abuse. This is not just true for some; it is true for all. Abuse is not the province of a deviant few. It is a risk that must be recognized by everyone who holds power. No long-term solution is possible absent such an initial acknowledgement.

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