Power Dynamics and Sexual Abuse

It seems relevant to explore the issue of power dynamics right now.  Power dynamics  play an enormous part in abuse and harassment, in corporate crisis and in our various on-going political traumas.

Where there is power asymmetry, ie one person or group has actual or apparent power or authority over others, there is an absolute dependency on the integrity of the dominant party.

The key words here are “apparent” and “integrity”.  Very often we give away our power when there is no need to and even when the dominant party does not want us to.  It is also important to say that there are very many people who act with complete integrity when they are in dominant positions and actively avoid abusing that power.

Most of us learn the lessons of power dynamics at a young or even very young age.  We are taught about them by our parents and it is one of the key lessons we take from school.  What we learn is that those with apparent power can get us to: do arbitrary things,  punish or humiliate us if we don’t comply and get us to do things with promises of status in some form.  Of course not all teachers or parents follow this playbook, but enough do that it is unusual to find adults for whom both sides of these lessons, as the junior or the senior, are not deeply embedded, especially amongst those who were successful at school.

These power dynamics are not fixed but are situational.  The teacher who exploits power in class, might be meek and submissive with an authoritarian head teacher.  The class bully might have their status conferred on them by an older bully to whom they submit, but terrorise their peers.

In the terms of the brilliant work of Barry Oshry – we are all “Tops”, “Middles”, “Bottoms” or “Customers” depending on the situation.  In Oshry terms the Tops suck up the responsibility and feel burdened.  The Middles feel torn in trying to satisfy both the Tops, the Bottoms loose their own independence of thought and end up not saying what they think.  Bottoms feel oppressed and powerless, they might respond by acting up or more likely waiting to be told what to do and doing the minimum.  Customers are ignored and might go and seek alternatives.

Boss and Ruler style leaders (see previous blog) are primarily motivated by status and that status need can be satisfied in a variety of ways.  It might be sexual, obedience, wealth, violence or it might be all of these and more.

Where a Boss or Ruler who is also a Top and uses sexual power to confirm their status the likelihood of Middles or Bottoms (no pun intended) being abused is high.

Where they use obedience to confirm their status the chances of disaster are high, because Torn Middles will suppress their own principles to do what they are told and oppressed bottoms will not be willing or able to raise the alarm (see the movie Deepwater Horizon for an example).

Where they use wealth to confirm their status the chances of tax fraud and other forms of theft are high.  Again Torn Middles will suppress their principles and Oppressed Bottoms won’t blow the whistle.  (See the movie Wizard of Lies, about Bernie Madoff for an example).

As a less extreme example,  I spoke to a senior manager (CEO minus 2) in a global organisation last week.  His role was as a market expert to predict trends and guide strategy.  When I suggested he include data that went against the industry norm he started by challenging the data, but after a little pushing admitted is was not that he disagreed with the data, but that he did not feel able to put counter orthodox ideas forward out of fear.  I am not sure he knew exactly what he was afraid of because he had never tested it, but he was adamant that putting such ideas forward at all was career limiting.

The antidote to all of these situations is authenticity.

Authentic leadership very specifically enables and encourages others to also be authentic.  To have and express their point of view, to raise concerns and explore alternatives.  Authentic leadership creates the kind of psychological safety that builds trust and enables everyone to contribute their own unique value and skills to any situation.

Personal authenticity (when we are not also leading) enables us to maintain our independence and be true to our values, to raise concerns or to exit troubling situations.

Authenticity is a journey of self discovery, first to understand who we are and then to learn to be true to that self in all situations skilfully, in ways that enable the authenticity of those around us.  For the avoidance of doubt authenticity is not, as some commentators appear to think, spewing whatever random bile comes into your head the moment it does, regardless of the impact on others.

At Holos we have a leadership assessment tool (Holos Leadership Behaviour Assessment) that creates a detailed map of our leadership style.  It clearly articulates how we lead at our best and how we react when triggered.  It also gives detailed feedback on how to develop as an authentic leader.  Typically Boss style leadership is not a pathology, it is just a style and a habit that can be changed (though not in all cases).

As you might guess from the above we would only recommend electing, appointing or promoting Authentic or Visionary style leaders to positions of authority, whether in business, education or politics.  While the quick results and assertiveness that Boss style leaders show can be attractive the results always come at a cost to the future.

Please let me know if you would like more information on taking or using the Holos Leadership Behaviour Assessment.

Holos helps make change easy. We help organisations develop their leaders, map out and deliver the changes required to achieve sustained success even in a highly disrupted environment.

At Holos we have been studying change leadership and leadership training in the crucible of reality for years. We know what great leadership looks like and we know the journey to achieve it. We have developed a suite of diagnostic tools to understand where companies and teams are on this journey and how to take them from there to sustained success.

Holos has a wealth of specialist leadership and culture coaches and consultants with decades of experience working with a huge variety of leaders. Holos can help you or your organisation to upgrade it’s leadership to flourish even in a challenging business environment.

Please share your ideas, comment and discuss here – click on the blog title and scroll to the bottom to find the comment box.

You can subscribe for free at http://www.holoschange.com


Neil Crofts

+447803 774239


About Neil Crofts

Writer, coach and consultant on authentic business and authentic leadership. Neil has inspired and motivated hundreds organisations and thousands of individuals to their highest potential. Neil has written three published books and numerous e-books. Neil is a coach, facilitator and consultant helping people and businesses find their authentic purpose and use it to inspire and motivate them to be everything that they can be. Neil has raced cars, been self-employed, run a company and sold it, been employed by large companies, experienced growth and contraction at the heart of the dotcom boom, tried changing companies from the inside and from the outside as European Head of Strategy at internet consultancy/rock band Razorfish. Neil has been independent for over 10 years and delivered his Authentic Leadership message to a diverse range of business audiences including people at BP, Shell, Microsoft, Kraft Foods, MSN, Jamie Oliver, South Gloucestershire Council, National Blood Transfusion Service, KaosPilots Business School, Fashion company By Malene Birger, German technology company Eleven.
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