What’s My Piece of the Mess?

By Dr. Hal M. Lewis

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 in the Jewish community should be thinking about all year-round and not just as we usher in a new year.

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 insight has dominated my thoughts since reading the Ha’aretz piece on Ari Shavit earlier this summer. Shavit, the Israeli journalist who admits to having sexually harassed a colleague more than two years ago, gave a “mea culpa” interview to a well-known Israeli legal scholar. Two months ago that story was big news, and as we approach the season of repentance it might be worth a second read. I cite Shavit’s words here neither to forgive nor to further condemn but because of a single paragraph nestled within an almost ten-page article.

Reflecting upon his life since the details of the story first became known, Shavit said the following:

What I can tell you is that the most meaningful discovery I made about myself is that … I never saw myself as a figure of power. Sure, I had an ego. But because I wasn’t in a formal position of authority – a [government] minister, a CEO, a general, a producer or even a newspaper editor – who appoints, promotes or dismisses people, I didn’t recognize the power my career had given me. And I didn’t internalize the responsibility inherent in this power.

I have no opinion about whether these words accurately reflect what Shavit believes – I would not know. But I do know that the sentiments he expressed resonate with many who lead, irrespective of the presence or absence of scandal.

When Ari Shavit said that he never saw himself as a “figure of power,” he was reflecting a popular tendency to conflate power and influence with rank and title. Like many who fail to think of themselves as wielders of power, Shavit asserted that because “I wasn’t in a formal position of authority… I didn’t recognize [my] power…” This assumption is as commonplace as it is dangerous.

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.” But what Shavit reminds us is that very few of us really think of ourselves as having power, in part because we falsely equate power with position or authority.

The reality is that most of us in positions of leadership and responsibility have enormous power, even if we lack fancy titles, notoriety, 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.

The Shavit interview makes clear that 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, as Shavit did, 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 underappreciated.

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.

To this end, the start of a New Year might be the perfect time for a reassessment of how we train leaders. Precious few among the current leadership training offerings give serious treatment to leadership ethics in general, and to the issues associated with the use and abuse of power, in particular. Including a focus on these issues would allow our leaders, current and future, to move from the language of blaming others, from pointing the finger, to the language of accountability, and a willingness to probe our own individual “piece of the mess.”

My favorite definition of adulthood is the ability to distinguish between “It got lost,” and “I lost it.” While we continue to stand with victims, work to change the culture and seek to prosecute perpetrators, we are not exempt from looking at our own leadership. Serious programs of leadership training and development must enable those who lead to hold a mirror up to themselves, to examine how they engage with followers, how they supervise, and how they handle their own power, whether or not they hold what Shavit called, “a formal position of authority.”

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the Principal Consultant for Leadership For Impact LLC – a nonprofit leadership consulting firm working with executives and boards on issues ranging from executive coaching to board development. The former President and CEO, and current Chancellor of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, he is a prolific writer and teacher on leadership. He serves on the faculty at the Center For Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC and can be reached at hlewis@leadershipforimpact.com. Follow his blog on leadership.