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Take Care of Your People

I have lectured and established research alliances in many places in this beautiful world spreading the gospel of strategic leadership.  In addition to my natural assignment in the USA, I have taught courses in Macau, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. I also lectured in Shanghai, Turkey, India, Italy, Greece, Paraguay, Switzerland, Germany, France, Spain, South Africa, Northern Ireland, The United Kingdom, Portugal, Netherlands, Columbia, Canada, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. I have established working research alliances with colleagues in many more places than I have visited, such as Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. We work as a team using the strategic leadership instruments and protocols Dan and I developed even though we may never meet each other face to face.

I don't relate this information to aggrandize my work - but to share a lesson that I had thought I learned and recently relearned after being so exposed to different people across the world.

Reflecting on my travels, I have often said people around the world are similar in their human emotions and behaviors. I have always found a outstretched hand to help when I was in trouble even if I could not speak the language. People are friendly; like the time I was in the wrong immigration line going across the border from Macau into Mainland China and saw a kind Chinese face waving his arms frantically from the line halfway across the hall and mouthing YOU ARE IN THE WRONG LINE.  How did he know?  Or the time in Paris when a gentleman walked for ten minutes with me to show me the way even though he was going in the opposite direction. Or the policeman in Istanbul who hailed a cab for me in rush hour traffic! 

People are helpful was my thought; it was governments that caused many of the problems among the human race but then I guess we can't do without them.  So I have travelled feeling relatively as safe as I feel when in New York City. I used to tell my American friends that what I found was that people are not aching for democracy; they ache for is better working conditions and better pay so they can enjoy the fruits of life.  Well I used to say that until I met Walter.

Walter is a retired electrical engineer who grew up in Germany when Hitler was in power and travelled extensively in China studying their history and politics. At a small dinner party Walter set me straight. 

Walter said, "The conclusion I came to after traveling, observing, and studying is that it is human nature to abuse power. Hitler abused his power, Khadafy abuses his power, Hussein abused his power, many of the Caesars’ abused their power, and many of the 153 Emperors of China abused their power - it’s human nature! Even prison guards who have power over prisoners’ abuse it; look at Abu Ghraib. Bureaucrats have power over the applicant and are tempted to abuse it."

Walter continued (well, he was on his second martini), "I also noticed that some countries took steps to address the abuse of power by their leaders.  In Great Britain, I appreciated the Magna Carta of 1215 which addressed the two worst abuses of power by a ruler:

 • Arbitrary punishment : You can only be convicted by a Jury of your Peers - initially only the nobles.

 • The Taking of Property : The King must not cut timber for his castle in a forest he does not own.

I concluded that The Magna Carta was the beginning of a Democratic form of government and the way I see it Democracy is the only way to reduce and restrict the Abuse of Power by a ruler."

I think what Walter was telling me is that the reason we need Democracy is not just to thrive economically but as a way deal with abuses of power when they do happen. Even tyrants can try to take care of their people – but it’s human nature to abuse power.  I concluded from my reflection, that what countries and organizations need are leaders who listen to those who are not part of the ruling class, find abuses and correct them immediately if they wish to continue to lead.

Well that is what I concluded until I asked my colleague Dan what he thought about it.  Dan is a historian by training.  He said, “I think reframing the power of democracy as a way to present the abuse of power is Hobbesian in that you are promoting a system to prevent negative outcomes as opposed to promoting a system that has positive outcomes.  Democracy is an abused concept in all of this – true democracy needs to be local and direct.  My experience is that people are by nature well-intended because we have that in our genes, unlike Rousseau’s Tabula rasa we are in fact born as beings that look for love – our natural search is not one directed towards hate or unpleasant emotions.  Pleasure is equated with love.  This is then strengthened when the society around us teaches us that good intentions and caring are rewarding.  That is why REAL democracy works – because people feel cared for when their voice is listened to and counted.  And, when you care about what other people opine and feel, you tend NOT to abuse power, but try to reward yourself by meeting their needs."

I listened to Walter and was persuaded. I listened to Dan and I was persuaded.  But then I decided to stop reframing and start reflecting.

While I lean to the blank slate theory of Rousseau – that that individuals are born without built-in mental content and that their knowledge comes from experience and perception.  I also know that some traits are genetic; it’s not one way.  Yet I still believe in the goodness of man and the construction of life from continuous reflection on experience.  

However, I am more persuaded pragmatically by research rather than philosophical debate such as Google’s recent study which concluded that "What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers."

So in a sense Walter was right and Dan was right.  But as we know by now, being right is not enough.  I suggest that you take care of your people or they will take care of you!

Now, what do you think?  Is it human nature to abuse power?  Is that why we need Democracy? Or, do we just need to take care of our people?

What do you think?
Do you have a story to share?

John Pisapia 2010

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