Why We Need Softies In Leadership

Power to the peaceful.
– Michael Franti

“[He] said that he could kill me at that very moment, and no one could or would do anything about it, as we were in Iraq,” cited the memo from US Diplomatic Security special agent Jean C. Richter to senior State Department officials in Washington. The 2007 investigation into Blackwater’s misconduct and abuse of power was quickly aborted, after Blackwater’s project manager in Iraq, Daniel Carroll, in a low even tone, eyes leveled and fixed on Richter, spoke those words.

In a recent New York Times article outlining Blackwater’s reputation for bullying and recklessness, Richter was quoted that he was especially alarmed because Mr. Carroll was Blackwater’s leader in Iraq, and “organizations take on the attitudes and mannerisms of their leader.” While conflict still rages in Iraq, four Blackwater guards involved in fatally shooting 17 civilians at Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007, just weeks after the investigation began, now stand trial in Washington.

Leader. Leadership. Power. Authority. Influence. Amongst good-hearted people these words are becoming the unmentionables, four-lettered, and to be avoided. It’s understandable given the abuse of power that we see around us, in Iraq, on Wall Street, in the government, in increased workplace bullying, and blatant corporate swagger. Our frustration is made worse by a toothless press and increased restrictions on public protest and free speech.


I witnessed this distrust in a recent EQUUS session. The founder and director of a large successful non-profit joined me in the arena for some business mentoring. Engaging two horses to explore some of her staff challenges, she eventually, through her clarity and intention, was able to entice both of them to run in unison around her, in a smooth, close circle and in one gesture, invite them both to join her quietly at a standstill. In recounting what she accomplished, the word ‘power’ left my lips. Without hesitation she said, ‘Let’s not use that word.’

Suffice to say, I did use that word, again and again. We unpacked her relationship to power, and how she denied herself access to it, because she equated power with force. For she was, indeed, a very powerful and influential leader. But in her mistrust of it, she had only tapped into a small fraction of the dynamo that still resided within her, aching to be released. That is, until she sent two twelve hundred pound animals around her at a joyful expressive gallop with just her intention.

The trouble is that our culture has taught us a predatory and dominant approach to power and leadership. From our experience as small children, most of us at the hands of corporal punishment (or the threat of it) to the indiscriminant behaviors of some of our most celebrated leaders, confusion about what power means runs rife among those who are more sensitive, caring and empathetic.

And that confusion is costing us—all of us. It costs us because we end up with many leaders who are more comfortable with force and abuse. It costs us because we are denied leadership from those who would lead informed by their empathy and compassion, and the places they might take us. It costs us because we hesitate to step into our most powerful places in our lives, because we mistrust it. It costs us because we are led by the lowest common denominator, rather than by vision, possibility, generosity, collaboration and sensitivity. And abuse of power, indeed, is not powerful at all.

Sensitive qualities are imperative to good leadership. I would venture to say that without those qualities, it is not true leadership, because by definition, to lead means to guide others for the good of the whole. And while our culture is all starry eyed over the bad boys (and girls), it is the sensitive people who are, in fact, better qualified to do the job.

What might a world look like led by softies? Win-win scenarios, outside-the-box solutions, wholistic approaches to problems, a lot less fear, and a lot more generosity.

In a family of horses, clients discover that while one could ‘control’ a horse through intimidation, manipulation, fear and force, one can only gain a horse’s authentic investment when one uses other, more powerful means: magnetism, invitation, empathy and unity. A horse needs to know that your requests come from an intention of care—care for him and care for his family. You have to earn your leadership. To lead him, you must be noble, and nothing less. Only then have you won his trust. Only then do you benefit from the real beauty and magnificence of these elegantly proud creatures.

It is here, in the humble domain of a dusty paddock, that true leaders learn the art of nobility, charisma, trustworthiness, dignity and accountability. It is here that more sensitive would-be leaders at last gain permission to claim their power, because they see its true face—love. They also learn that sensitivity is useless unless coupled with some real backbone—boundaries and clarity, coupled with compassion and flexibility, make for a potent combination.

When clients try these generous means inside their organization, miracles happen. Previously unengaged employees begin taking initiative. People begin to tell the truth. Communication improves. Outside-the-box possibilities emerge.

There’s a dark underbelly to our mistrust of power. It’s not just that when more sensitive people deny themselves access to their own power, they just go quiet. All that life-force has to go somewhere. When we deny ourselves our rightful empowered place, our power goes out sideways, in more destructive expressions. Passive aggression, gossip, underhanded manipulation, backstabbing, secrecy, depression and addiction are all part of the tapestry of self-oppression. Yes, admit it, we sensitives can be pretty tyrannical when driven underground.

To release that little tyrant into the dominion he or she was born for, it’s helpful to befriend all those four letter words. One helpful way can be to examine what the Buddhists call “near enemies”. According to this way of thinking, for every desirable habit or state of mind, there’s a “far enemy”, which is its obvious antithesis. Thus hatred is the far enemy of love. But near enemies are much sneakier and harder to spot, because they so closely resemble the thing they’re the enemy of. Needy, possessiveness can look and feel like love, when really it corrodes it.

Lots of near enemies have masqueraded around like power and leadership. Here are a few:

Power – near enemy is force
Authority – near enemy is manipulation
Lead – near enemy is dominate
Influence – near enemy is violate

The loudest, most cunning and most forceful among us are not the most powerful. And a sea-change is happening inside companies and organizations that is quietly yet surely reflecting this fact.

All we need now, is you.

You can read more of Kelly’s writing at EQUUS, here.

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