Learning to share power is the challenge of the twenty-first century.
Men and women of diverse educational and economic backgrounds can access information and resources that were unavailable to them a mere decade ago. Today, anyone with a great idea can raise money online, order supplies delivered to the door, and conceive a multi-million-dollar corporation in the corner of a basement or garage.
In our global culture, it’s not only journalists and politicians who disseminate information and share views. People around the world watch dramas as they unfold moment to moment, empathize, and join an international conversation that sometimes changes minds and lives.
As a result, command-and-control forms of leadership are suddenly less relevant — and on their way to becoming impotent and, finally, obsolete.
Still, after five thousand years of hierarchical, conquest-oriented models, it takes time, imagination, and experimentation to change old patterns. Blocks to success arise daily when people lack the sophisticated interpersonal skills to collaborate with coworkers, employees, clients — and family members, for that matter. But we’re on the right track.
Emotional Intelligence (EQ) vs. IQ
In the last twenty years, much has been written about the importance of emotional and social intelligence in the workplace — even in technical fields where geniuses proliferate. One ambitious study, undertaken by UC Berkeley, followed eighty-five PhD candidates in various scientific disciplines over a forty-year period. The results were surprising: High emotional intelligence (EQ) turned out to be four times more important in determining professional success than raw IQ and training.
Just as physical conditioning takes consistency and dedication, emotional fitness doesn’t happen overnight. But there’s another challenge that raises the stakes considerably: We are, as a species, charged with rewriting the playbook for a whole new era of egalitarian sports, and the rules are changing fast.
Glimpse of the Future
When I was promoted to a management position in the 1980s, there were no studies to legitimize what are still loosely, sometimes dismissively, referred to as “soft skills.” The term “emotional intelligence” didn’t emerge until 1990.
It took another six years for Daniel Goleman to publish his influential book, Emotional Intelligence. His equally important titles Primal Leadership (with Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee) and Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships weren’t released until 2002 and 2006, respectively. These and other books by authorities in the field have since sold millions of copies. Their popularity is a testament to something significant that went unnamed for far too long.
The Elephant in the Room
Over the next twenty years, I worked in nonprofit, corporate, freelance, entrepreneurial, and even therapeutic contexts, sometimes as a manager, sometimes as an employee taking an unofficial leadership role, and sometimes as a collaborator, educator, board member, or consultant. Over time, I began to see a pattern.
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Brilliant, well-meaning people who were technically accomplished in all kinds of fields had trouble getting along. While most said they felt stifled by traditional hierarchical structures, debilitating conflict all too often ensued when these same professionals were given free rein to question the status quo, experiment, and create something new with others.
While I expected this in highly competitive business and political settings, I was most astonished by the behavior of people in the caring fields. I encountered several experienced psychologists, for instance, who would wreak havoc in innovative situations where there was no officially designated leader. They could only seem to function well when they were either clearly the authority figure or deferring to someone they perceived to be in charge. While their patients loved them, these accomplished therapists simply could not collaborate with peers.
As a result of witnessing all kinds of unproductive behavior in corporate and social service fields, I continually searched for more efficient interpersonal communication tools, and I began teaching these skills to organizations and individual clients. Growing research on emotional intelligence certainly helped. Still, what mystified me the most was power, which was something very few people, myself included initially, were willing — or able — to discuss.
Most professionals avoided the issue, silently enduring the myriad dysfunctional ways that otherwise well-adjusted adults struggled to negotiate their needs and gain influence. Power plays abounded in the most benign situations — sometimes overtly, but more often than not through covert, passive-aggressive moves.
It seemed that no one knew how to talk about the unruly bull elephant in the room, let alone teach him how to play nicely with others.
Using power well is not a soft skill. Even so, it requires a sophisticated integration of leadership and social intelligence to channel potentially explosive forces into a focused and benevolent source of energy. I first experienced this delicate balance through working with horses, not people.
In the winter of 1993, I was living in Tucson, Arizona. After attending a few concerts and hiking down any number of cactus-lined paths, I decided to do something different: I took one of the many scenic-trail horse rides advertised around town. The experience was so serene, expansive, and invigorating that I bought my first horse, Nakia, the following weekend.
My intention was to ride into the desert to escape the sometimes- frustrating world of human affairs. Yet my beautiful, willful mare had something else in mind. Nakia, a striking Thoroughbred ex-racehorse, tested me every step of the way. Many of the tactics and strategies I had learned dealing with people didn’t work with her.
Yet a strange thing began to happen. As I became more adept at motivating my horse, focusing her attention, and gaining her respect, relationships at home and work improved. People commented on the change, yet no one could pinpoint what had shifted. The plot thickened as I gained more knowledge about instinctual horse behavior.
What Works for the Unruly Stallion Works for the Difficult Person
Based on my observations of how leadership, dominance, and cooperation work together in high-functioning herds, I began to notice nonverbal power dynamics between humans that were reinforcing unproductive patterns. What’s more, techniques I used to gain the trust of unruly stallions worked equally well with difficult people. I suspected that with a little modification, I could even teach these skills to nonequestrians for use at home and work, but developing such a program would take some time.
Over the next eight years, I visited mainstream and therapeutic equestrian centers, interviewed experts in all kinds of related fields, studied a wide variety of riding and training techniques, and experimented with my own growing herd.
My first clients were equestrians dealing with “problem horses.” As I slowly became more successful at teaching nonaggressive leadership, mutually respectful relationship, and conflict-resolution skills, something profound — yet, from my point of view, predictable — happened to my human students. Their lives at home and work improved as well. And I began to revisit my dream of creating programs for nonequestrians to benefit from learning these same skills in safe, nonriding activities.
It was an exciting time. Still, the pieces needed to explain what people could learn from horses hadn’t fully developed by the late 1990s. Back then, equine-facilitated psychotherapy was just emerging from the field of therapeutic riding, and mainstream equestrians were only beginning to accept the idea that horses were sentient beings with a dignity and wisdom all their own.
So you can imagine how hard it was to explain to people that while I was intrigued and most certainly inspired by the potential of equine-facilitated therapy, I was most interested in partnering with horses to help so-called “well-adjusted” people learn to how to excel in life and work.
In the six months between submitting the final manuscript [The Power of the Herd] and its hardcover publication, I developed what I eventually called “the Five Roles of a Master Herder,” and I experimented with its effectiveness on clients and staff. In collaboration with my colleague Juli Lynch, PhD, I also created a self-assessment to help clients evaluate which roles they showed proficiency or talent in and which roles they were avoiding or abdicating.
In doing research for The Power of the Herd, I found that for thousands of years, “Master Herders” in nomadic pastoral cultures had developed a multifaceted, socially intelligent form of leadership that combined five roles, which I call the Dominant, the Leader, the Nurturer/ Companion, the Sentinel, and the Predator.
I realized this same nuanced approach to leadership and social organization must be resurrected, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, if we hope to motivate modern tribes of empowered, mobile, innovative, and adaptable people to support one another through the inevitable droughts and doubts of life as we move ever more faithfully and confidently toward the greener pastures of humanity’s own untapped potential.
Employing these roles, consciously and fluidly, might seem like an overwhelming task at first glance, but I promise you, they’re easy to recognize, even among citified humans. The average adult is already good at wielding more than one. But the idea of individuals developing and balancing all five of these roles for the good of one’s family, business, and ever-widening local — and global — community promises something even more ambitious: a leap in the social evolution of humanity itself, helping large numbers of people to become empowered, fully actualized adults.
In this effort, we must consciously harness wisdom that nature has been promoting for millennia. In our sedentary culture, few people — even accomplished equestrians — realize that in herds of freely roaming herbivores, the Leader and the Dominant animals are often two different individuals, that they perform specific functions essential to the group’s well-being, and that the other three roles also contribute to the healthy functioning of the social system — even when humans are not involved.
Still, most animals, Homo sapiens included, are drawn toward a couple of roles, while ignoring, avoiding, or outright rejecting the others. This tendency not only keeps everyone in a state of arrested development; it has a tendency to wreak havoc in challenging situations — unless the herd or tribe is managed by an exceptional leader who, like a Master Herder in a traditional pastoral culture, is capable of employing the various roles as tools, rather than identifying with only one or two.
The simple, eternally irritating truth of the matter is that each role has a shadow side that results in dysfunctional behavior when it is overemphasized. We’re well aware, for instance, that people who cling to the role of Dominant or the role of Predator can become highly destructive in businesses, in families, and most certainly in politics.
Your average dictator takes it one step further, combining the roles of Dominant and Predator and enslaving and victimizing people in order to thrive at their expense. But many people don’t realize that these two roles are useful, necessary in fact, when separated and employed sparingly, for very specific purposes, by people who are well-versed in nonpredatory forms of power: people who know when and how to employ all five roles for the good of the tribe.
For many people, it’s also counterintuitive, yet ultimately enlightening, to realize that even the Nurturer/Companion role can have toxic effects in organizations and families when this function is overemphasized in an individual.
©2016 by Linda Kohanov. Used with permission of
New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com
About the Author
Linda Kohanov, the author of the bestseller The Tao of Equus, speaks and teaches internationally. She established Eponaquest Worldwide to explore the healing potential of working with horses and offer programs on everything from emotional and social intelligence, leadership, stress reduction, and parenting to consensus building and mindfulness. Her main website is www.EponaQuest.com.