The discussion of corporate power, its misuses and abuses, abound in our world today. To name a few: companies allowing tainted products to go to market; corporations laying off loyal employees while the “higher ups” enjoy exorbitant salaries, bonuses, and big profits; corporations receiving huge bailouts and continuing to spend and spend on “perks” … including continuing to lobby congress for further bailouts. And still more: mortgage lending abuses leading to widespread foreclosures; corporate contributions to political campaigns as a way to buy favors; corporate control within mass media; use of our planet’s limited resources for corporate gain; inhuman conditions in foreign sweatshops. Are corporations truly concerned with public interest or simply determined to keep their power? And who benefits from this power hoarding?
The following story takes this issue to an even deeper place; the place where change must occur in order for our world to recover. This place is within each of us. How do we use our personal power? Personal power misuse and abuse can undermine the potential of any corporation. And right use of power has the ability to transform it.
Imagine if … corporations, their employees and leaders fearlessly worked to improve our world. Imagine if … corporate resources were only used to improve a balanced bottom line while respecting the planet, employees, and future generations. Imagine if … the leaders of every organization worked with their feelings so they didn’t have to act them out on the corporate and world stage. Imagine if … every one of us did our own healing work so that we could contribute to this vision in the best way possible.
As organizational leaders and change agents are you prepared to personally take on the challenge of deep change? Are you willing to look at how the transformation of your inner world can in turn transform your outer world? Are you willing to heal your relationship with power for the betterment of yourself, an improved impact on your co-workers and employees, and the transformation of your organization?
The Story of John
John storms into his office fuming, slams the door behind him, and paces around the room. Through his glass enclosed CEO office, he takes in all that he has built in the past ten years. And, quite frankly, he doesn’t give a damn who sees him in his self-justified rage.
Sharon, his executive assistant, did not give him what he wanted. She didn’t have the report ready as much ahead of time as John wanted; she didn’t have it put together in a sophisticated enough package; the font and type size she chose turned him off; and she had absolutely no graphics in the report at all. But worst of all … she didn’t know what he wanted without his having to ask her!
As he paces and mutters to himself, the fuming calms and then rises again to a fevered pitch. “How could she not have known? She’s had six months to learn about me. To discover what I need and want!”
This is the fifth assistant in 2½ years that he let go after six months on the job. Is he ever going to find the right assistant?
John, president of a very successful financial company, has built his business from nothing. All by himself! And at the expense of everyone who works for him. Not an employee in the company escapes his displeasure. Whether it comes in the form of subtle chipping away at self-confidence, threats of dismissal if something is not done John’s way, public humiliation in meetings and in the everyday office environment, or fiery rages … each employee knows someday, any day, he or she might be the recipient. Everyone walks on eggshells at the office, and particularly around John.
And why does John allow himself to behave this way? Isn’t he aware of what he’s doing? Doesn’t he care that he is alienating and frightening everyone in his company? Perhaps everyone with whom he does business? Doesn’t he feel any remorse? What can he be thinking?
One of John’s best customers, Arnie, has witnessed this power dynamic in John’s company a couple of times while visiting. Employees walk on eggshells. John explodes. Employees cower. And John leans over to Arnie, as though he’s about to confide in his customer. “Our foundational policy, Arnie, is to give the customer what he wants. For my employees, you’re the customer. And so am I. We get what we want! That’s it!”
Arnie is repelled by this, but doesn’t let on in the moment. Finally, one day, it is Arnie who leans over to John to confide in his business colleague, “You might not want to hear this, John, but I have to tell you. I don’t feel good about how you treat your employees. I think you have a problem.”
“What!” bristles John. “What are you telling me?”
“You treat them like slaves who should be at your beck and call,” continues Arnie. “I think you need to get some help. I know a woman who helps people with just this kind of situation. She helps them get to the root of why and how they use or misuse their power the way they do. She aims to help them use their power well, magnificently … which is exquisite leadership. Actually, John, I had a situation in my company with one of my employees that I had to address. She helped me a lot, both with my employee and with myself. That’s why I’m now able to talk to you about this.”
“What are you saying, Arnie? That I abuse my power? That I’m an abuser?” John asks with his words, while protesting with his tone of voice. His mind is racing. Now he is scared. He doesn’t dare tell Arnie that he has lost 3 customers in the past six months because of the same thing. He feels threatened. To save his business with Arnie, maybe to save his business period, he is going to have to go see this woman and prove to Arnie he’s trying.
“How does it feel to you to think that, John?”
“Horrible,” blurts John, partly to ease the threat and partly because it’s true. Something inside John is just beginning to shift. “But if it’s true, I want to do something about it. I’ve thought I was just being a strong boss. I don’t want to be abusive – to anyone.”
Arnie takes out his own business card, turns it over, writes on it, and hands John the card. “Here, John. Call this woman, Judith.”
John calls me, saying Arnie has referred him. When he comes for the initial consultation, he is blustery at first. Telling me about his conversation with Arnie, the business he has recently lost, and his desire to build not destroy his company, within a couple of minutes he begins to soften. As he watches and feels my response to him, he continues to open up with me. He tells me about his outburst with Sharon. In his description are just the clues I need:
“How could she not know?
She’s had six months to learn about me.
To discover what I need and want!”
“Does that feel and sound familiar to you, John?” I gently explore.
“No. Why do you ask?” he inquires, taken aback.
“To me, John, it feels like your response to Sharon is not about the current time. It is far too intense and deep to be about today. It sounds like what Sharon did or did not do is pushing a button in you, sparking something from your childhood. Perhaps before you ever had words to speak or could even think in words. My sense, John … we have the clues both to find the root of your reaction and to help you not just control it, but even heal it. If you want to do that.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re way over my head,” John prickles in confusion and frustration.
“Let me ask you this, John. Do you decide you’re going to yell at Sharon before you begin?”
“Of course not. Do you think I would be such a fool?” John bridles defensively.
“I’m not trying to criticize or demean you in any way, John. I’m attempting to gather one more piece of information before I show you the clues I’ve gathered. I just need to know if you decide you’re going to yell at Sharon or if the explosion just seems to come on its own.”
“It erupts like a volcano. It has a life of its own.” He begins to settle down. I’m quite sure I have seen the beginnings of the reaction John experiences on a daily basis.
“Thank you, John.” I start pulling the threads together. “When we have unfinished, unresolved, or unhealed issues from our childhood, they erupt in relation to everything in our lives, particularly the people in our lives. When that happens, it is the sign post to the work we need to undertake. The key: The here and now events are the gateway to past occurrences that are still alive and unresolved within us.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” John comments, a bit more open, curiosity aroused.
“It’s true for all of us, John,” I continue teaching, building a foundation of understanding for showing him his personal issues. “You, me, Arnie. Everyone in your company, everyone in your family. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, clergy, politicians, government officials, world leaders. All of us. The task is to find the clues, trace them to their source, understand the patterns and defense we’ve developed to avoid the early pain, and do the deep work to heal ourselves to the root. If we don’t do the work inside ourselves related to our own past, then we create in the outer world something that is painful for us and those around us. I think this is what’s happening at your office.”
“So at least I’m not alone,” relief breathes through John’s pores.
“No, you aren’t, John,” I assure him. “And here are the first few clues: You have not gotten past the first six months with any assistant in the past 2½ years. Six months seems to be an important threshold for you. When you are triggered, or as I call it ‘evoked,’ your response is reflexive and somewhere on the continuum from displeasure to volcanic rage. The words that go with your feelings are: ‘How could she not know? She’s had six months to learn about me. To discover what I need and want!’ Right here, John we have enough information to guide us.”
“I understand, but I don’t know where you’re going with it,” John sounds annoyed again.
“Here’s where I’m going, John. My hunch: the explosive, abusive reaction of the almost 6-foot-tall, 220-pound man that you are … is really the emotional response of 6-month-old baby John, whose mother still didn’t attune to him after six months of knowing him. Who still didn’t know what he needed and wanted after all that time.”
John chokes a bit, perhaps on the tears that he can’t yet allow to flow. Color rises slowly in his face. When he is finally able to speak, he whispers, “That rings true.” After a few minutes in silence, John continues softly, hesitantly, “What next?”
“We will need to end this consultation in about 10 minutes, John. What would you like to do next?” I ask, putting the power of choice back in his hands.
“I feel scared and hopeful,” he responds honestly. “I don’t think what I’ve learned in an hour today is going to solve the problem. But I would like to work with you in the hopes that we can end my explosions. Do you think that’s possible?”
“Yes, I do, John, especially if you want to,” I respond in celebration. “And I’d be glad to work with you to that end. You’ve made a powerful start. In the long run, this will be healing for you, for your company, for your employees, and for your customers. And it will be a profound imprint for healing the misuse of power in our world.”
We schedule a weekly appointment. I give John a consciousness-building homework assignment – to write everything he’s aware of when he has been triggered. And we say ‘goodbye’ until next week. After John leaves, I give great thanks for one more step toward healing the misuse and abuse of power in our world, and helping people to use their power well!
Note 1: This story is a fictionalized composite of real life experiences.
Note 2: It is not only employers who misuse and abuse their power. Employees do, too. I’m using this example to make a point: if the employer doesn’t heal his or her misuse and abuse of power, the entire organization suffers, with a rippling effect out into the world.
© Copyright 2009 by Judith Barr, MS, LMHC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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