1

The Art of the Comeback

“To have a comeback you have to have a setback.”

—Mr. T

Falmouth High School—January 1983. I jump for a rebound. The next thing I know, I’m lying on the court, clutching my right shoulder in extreme pain. I would learn an hour later at the hospital that I’d dislocated my shoulder.

Shoulders are pretty important for basketball. As it turned out, I would miss the final month of my junior-year season before rejoining the team for a deep play-off run.

Deering High School—November 1983. It’s the last quarter of the final preseason game of my senior year. My team (Lake Region) secures a rebound and we’re off on a fast break. I am ahead of the pack and my brother lofts a strong and accurate pass my way. I jump to catch it on the run. The next thing I know, I’m lying on the court, clutching my right knee in extreme pain.

I would learn three days later that I had a complete tear of my ACL. Knees are pretty important for basketball. Surgery was next. I would miss my entire senior season.

Bowdoin College—February 1987. Morrell Gymnasium is full as it always is for Colby vs. Bowdoin. The game is tied at 88 as the final seconds tick off the clock. Our point guard Chris has the ball out beyond the top of the key. I’m in the right corner behind the 3-point line. All the other Bowdoin players are on the left-hand side of the court. This is an isolation play. Either we score at the buzzer, or the game goes into overtime.

Chris penetrates the gap in front of me. My defender leaves for a split second to help. At that moment Chris passes me the ball. As soon as I’ve caught it I’m airborne, releasing my jump shot. Everything goes into slow motion and then the ball backspins its way through the hoop. It is my 30th point of the game, and Bowdoin wins, 91–88. Players and fans rush the court.

It is the pinnacle of my basketball comeback from not one but two devastating injuries.

Between the moment of crashing to the floor at Deering High School with a torn ACL and sinking that shot in the final game of my junior-year season at Bowdoin came thousands of hours of rehab, recovery, and practice. Never during those three years was the result certain. Although the process was filled with setbacks, highs, lows, and lots of work, it never occurred to me to stop playing. That option never entered my mind. I was determined to be a multiyear college starter at Bowdoin, and with lots of help along the way, I pulled it off.

I have other comeback stories as well. Quite a few of them dot my life.

You have them too. Each one of them has explored and altered the universe. The meaning of the past and the trajectory of the future change every time a comeback occurs.

Setbacks are prerequisites for comebacks. There is no light without the dark. This is how human life on Earth is wired. The human experience is a never-ending dance between setbacks and comebacks, and it’s how we embrace them that determines our course.

I do not know a single human life that has been nonstop smooth sailing. Some may look that way, but that’s only because you are not seeing the full story. Every human life is a series of comebacks. If you think you’ve failed to prevail after misfortune, this only confirms that your comeback story is not over yet. There is no time limit. If you are alive, the comeback is still in play. It’s never too late to make a move, and, conversely, it is never too late to have another challenge come your way.

Comebacks are an example of our oneness with the universe. The future is always being written, created, and designed by us. We are the future, and we are the past.

Comebacks do not just change the future; they can also change the past.

My knee injury was devastating in that moment. For a short time, I was despondent. I saw no good in it at all. Today, I look at that twelve-inch incision scar on my right leg and smile. That torn ACL was one of the very best things that ever happened to me. I grew and gained so much more from it than I lost. In this way, I changed the past. My knee injury went from being a curse to a blessing because of how I chose to respond to it. My approach to the future gave a different meaning and value to something from the past.

The setback is the opportunity.

There is no comeback without the setback.

The value of what’s seemingly in the past is still to be determined—by you.

***

Thank you for considering my thoughts. In return I honor yours. Every voice matters. Nestled between our differences lies our future. www.thebusinessofsharedleadership.com

 




#29 | THE PROBLEM WITH IT ALL . . .

“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom.”

—Mahatma Gandhi

 

The potential blessing of this essay series is that I am writing from experience.

The potential problem with this essay series is that I am writing from experience.

* * *

When I decided to write this yearlong series about shared leadership, dispersed power, and respect for all voices, I simultaneously felt excitement and trepidation. This essay is devoted to the trepidation.

Close to the last thing this world needs is another CEO or anointed leader saying “Look at me.” I was so worried about this one point that I almost didn’t write this essay series at all. In fact, at one point I called it off and had to be talked back into sharing by my friends Kourtney and Erin from our communications team.

Then there was the challenge of the website upon which to post and host my writing. Prior to commencing this series the site was small and personal. As such, the site name was www.kevindhancock.com, but that too threw me off.

“It’s the message that’s important, not the messenger,” I said to Kourtney and Erin.

So we went back to the drawing board and changed the name of the site to www.thebusinessofsharedleadership.com. That felt better.

But we still had the same basic problem to overcome. I was writing in large part about my own ideas, which came from my own experiences, which often played out at our company. How do I share without implying that my experiences are uniquely valuable? How do I provide sound guidance to others while still honoring my own fallibility and weaknesses?

“I’ll just have to write about it,” I ultimately said to Kourtney and Erin.

And here I go . . .

The point of sharing my personal story is not that you should follow it. In my story I struggle to guide a two-century-old lumber company through the collapse of the housing market (2007–2010) only to lose some of my voice to a rare neurological speech disorder (spasmodic dysphonia), which then sent me journeying more than twenty times to a remote Indian reservation in South Dakota (Pine Ridge), where I met an entire community that did not feel heard. This experience helped me to realize that there are lots of ways to lose one’s voice in this world, and that leaders have often done more to restrict the voices of others than to liberate them. This, in turn, led me to rededicate my CEO role to strengthening the voices of others.

I am not recommending you do any of that.

Follow me is not the point of this essay series. In fact, to follow me would be to miss the point.

The point of this essay series is to Follow you.

My life got a lot better once I embraced my path and learned to follow. I could only have found that path by looking within myself. My opportunity appeared in the form of pain and setback.

Here’s the other important point: I likely look better from afar than I do up close! I’m actually a very ordinary person and CEO. I make lots of mistakes, both big and small. I drink too much soda. I eat too much fast food. I don’t give our dogs enough consistent love. I get impatient at times. I get self-absorbed at times. I fall out of living in the moment. I don’t always make the bed if I’m the last one out of it. At work I’m not always a great listener. I sometimes forget to have the patience for process. Sometimes I come in late. Sometimes I leave early. I can’t always do what I write about.

Our company, Hancock Lumber, is exceedingly human as well. We have excessive turnover in some parts of our company. Occasionally people get injured at work. Sometimes we make decisions without including everyone. Employees regularly have good reasons to be disappointed in part of their work experience. Customers, too, at times.

It’s important to me that you know all this.

It’s important to me that I confess.

Only in the spirit of humility can this essay series work.

Within that context we can share with benefit. Once we transcend ego we can learn from each other. In fact, to grow collectively, we must. Each individual life story flows into a shared human experience. What happens to one happens ultimately to us all. Your journey, not mine, must be your preoccupation. Out there before you is a path that only you will walk and a story only you will tell. In this realization, the concept of hero is redefined. Every one of us has embarked on a hero’s journey disguised as something ordinary.

 

“Great leaders don’t need to act tough.”

—Simon Sinek

_____

Thank you for considering my thoughts. In return I honor yours. Every voice matters. Nestled between our differences lies our future.




#28 | SLOW DOWN TO SPEED UP

“Strange what being slowed down could do to a person.”

—Nicholas Sparks

 

Here’s a picture of me actually demonstrating what I learned on the basketball court about the importance of slowing down to speed up!

Even though the gymnasium was filled with whistles, shouting, and squeaking sneakers, I can still hear the coach’s wisdom nearly forty years later.

I was at SWISH basketball camp at the University of Southern Maine, a junior in high school preparing for my senior year, and college competition beyond. We were working on dribble moves—penetration with the basketball into gaps designed to draw excess defenders and create open teammates.

“Slow down to speed up,” the coach had just instructed me.

I had hurried through a hesitation crossover dribble, thinking that faster was better.

“The hesitation is of no value unless you give it the gift of time,” the coach continued. “You’ve got to give the defender time to pause in response to your own pause. You’ve got to slow down to speed up.”

* * *

Decades later, I value those same words as both a CEO and a human.

From 1997 to 2010 I was the fast-moving CEO of Hancock Lumber Company. At that time I had a booming, infallible young voice and near-boundless energy. I would routinely work from six a.m. to six p.m., racing from location to location, using first my Dictaphone and later my cell phone between stops at stores, mills, and construction sites. If there was meeting to be had, I would attend it. It there was a problem to solve, I would solve it. If there was a sale to close, I would close it.

That defined my life as an average-performing CEO of an average-performing company.

The boss gets first dibs on all the work, I’ve become fond of saying.

Then, in 2010, I had a front-row seat to a double train wreck. First, the housing and mortgage markets collapsed and average-performing companies suddenly became vulnerable. Second, in response to the stress of the first event, I acquired a rare voice disorder that made speaking extremely difficult. Without warning, or training in how to do so, I had no choice but to slow down.

It took me about five years of therapy before I could even use the phone again. Running every meeting was now impossible. I began asking questions in response to questions, to put the conversation back in the hands of the other person and protect my broken voice. Listening, delegating, sharing the stage, and doing less, not more, became my new forced modus operandi.

Only then, ironically, did I begin to learn a little something about leadership.

* * *

Today I’m a CEO who advocates slowing down organizations and the people within them.

Here’s one specific example of how I’ve pursued that path.

Over the span of several years at Hancock Lumber we were able to reduce the average hourly work week in our stores from 48 hours per week to 41. At the same time we increased annual compensation. People were making more money and acquiring the gift of time. Seven hours a week may not sound like a lot until you multiply it by the length of a career (say, thirty years). That’s 10,920 hours.

To accomplish this, we had to take on the worst possible pay structure for the twenty-first century: overtime. Overtime pay incentivizes one outcome: working longer. In the modern age of accuracy, productivity, and lean practices, what companies should reward is employees making the work take less time, not more. This can be achieved through higher hourly pay rates for everyone complemented by bonus and incentive systems that encourage themes such as accuracy, safety, and the elimination of re-work.

As human productivity at work expands, we can use some of that freed capacity to make more lumber and deliver more building materials. But, we can also use some of that newfound time to just plain work less.

Today I talk regularly about putting the work back in its place. Work should be important, not all-consuming.

My next goal is to pursue the potential of the four-day work week. For our drivers and manufacturing teams, for example, that would be four 10-hour days. If we had four delivery trucks at a store and we wanted those trucks to be on the road 50 hours a week, we would have five drivers each working four days.

Great companies will keep finding ways to help employees earn more money, but they will also increasingly give their team members something perhaps even more important: the gift of time. Work should not be hurried, hectic, or chaotic. Nor should it be all-consuming. Great companies, like great point guards, will learn to Slow down to speed up.

 

“Sometimes I think there are only two instructions we need to follow to develop and deepen our spiritual life: slow down and let go.”

—Oriah Mountain Dreamer

 

______

Thank you for considering my thoughts. In return I honor yours. Every voice matters. Nestled between our differences lies our future.

 




#24 | HALFTIME

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
—Martin Luther King

This is essay #24, the halfway mark of my 2021 writing project. Two dozen essays have been shared and two dozen are yet to be created. Thank you for engaging and participating.

As a lifetime basketball player and coach, halftime in a game is an important moment to evaluate what’s transpired and set clear intentions for the work ahead. Taking stock in where we’ve been and where we’re going is always a valuable exercise.

When I begin a writing project I don’t fully know where it will take me or how it will end. While this approach has its pitfalls, it also has otherwise incalculable benefits. Writing, for me, is about surrendering to the unknown and releasing one’s instinct to seek control. It’s about learning to follow. It’s about letting the sacred light of the Universe flow through you in its most authentic and creative form. Your fingers on the keyboard become a conduit for the trajectory of the collective consciousness of humanity. Writing is about letting the divine speak through you.

But every writer still must strive to organize their thoughts in the best possible way. Even when the words are flowing freely, there’s lots of work to be done. While a river broadly defines a boater’s path, all kayakers still bring a paddle.

So, in order to maintain our course, let’s check in on the mission of this journey before proceeding to the second half.

Six months ago, in essay #1, I wrote the following:
The organizational structure of human society was long ago designed to compel us to look EXTERNALLY for direction, solutions, leadership, and control. This has been an intentional exercise and has produced an empire-centric view of our world. Employees exist to serve their company, followers, their church, and citizens, their state. These institutions have done some good through their centralization of power but they have also done some bad. Regardless, in virtually all cases, the common denominator is that the individual is advertently made small before the capital, the kingdom, and the crown. True power, we’ve been taught, lives “out there,” beyond our reach.

I’m interested in flipping that script. The goal is not to eliminate human institutions but rather to refocus them on dispersing power, not collecting it. The real power source of humanity lives dispersed and WITHIN us all. Each of us is a spark of divine light, a never-to-be-repeated gift. Institutions should exist to celebrate and accelerate self-actualization at an individual level. A great company (or country), therefore, should serve, honor, and ignite the talents of the people who work there.

The twenty-first century has the potential to mark the ascension of decentralized power, but for that to happen, the traditional model of leadership and followership must be reinvented.

That was week #1’s mission. In the twenty-two essays that followed, what if anything about that cause has evolved or changed?

Ultimately that’s up to each reader to decide. My sense is that this original intention is holding strong. In summary I’m aspiring to advance the following tenets of personal growth and organizational excellence:

The Seven Truths of Personal Growth and Organizational Excellence

  1. The sacred power and mystery of the Universe must be found first within you. “You are the truth you seek to know.” —Joseph Campbell
  2. For eons, those with the most social influence (church, state, and corporations) have attempted to convince individuals (including you) that authority and power live somewhere “out there,” beyond your grasp.
  3. But today a new age is dawning. The twenty-first century (the Aquarian Age) is all about dispersed power. It’s about awakening at the individual and local community levels. It’s about the recognition that every human voice is a sacred power source of light unto itself.
  4. In this new age change must first be created from within. You light up the world by honoring and serving yourself.
  5. This new paradigm shift transforms the traditional roles of leadership and followership. Today the followers must learn to lead and the leaders must learn to follow.
  6. Individuals don’t exist to serve human organizations. Human organizations exist to serve their individual members. When this shift occurs, organizational excellence becomes the outcome of a higher calling. That higher calling is improving the world one human at a time by helping the person in front of you feel trusted, respected, valued, and heard, exactly as they are.
  7. The old world order required and demanded conformity of thought. The new age that is upon us thrives by honoring diversity of thought. Voices are unique by design.

So far, the message has held course. But I would also add that, beneath it all, a singular new understanding has emerged. It has become clear to me that there is one universal power source that enables the high-end of humanity to manifest.

That singular power source is LOVE.

Love is the gift that every human, in every moment, regardless of race, religion, geography, or circumstance, can choose.

Love is a choice.

Love, or its absence, sets the stage for all that follows.

Jesus knew this. Gandhi knew this. Buddha knew this. Martin Luther King knew this. All the great prophets led with love.

But here’s the secret. Love cannot emanate from you until it’s held within you. This is why changing the world is an inside job. We must ignite the flame within before we can strengthen the fire of another.

Thus ends halftime.

I love you!

* * *

Thank you for considering my thoughts. In return I honor yours. Every voice matters. Nestled between our differences lies our future.

“I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.”
—Pablo Neruda

____________________

This is the twenty-fourth in a series of short essays to be posted by Kevin Hancock to www.thebusinessofsharedleadership.com in 2021, in honor of Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux holy man who was escorted as a child on a sacred vision quest by the 48 horses of the four directions to visit the six Grandfathers. My horses, prancing they are coming. They will dance; may you behold them. On that journey Black Elk understood the sacred power that dwelled within him and lives within us all. He also recognized that this power could be used for good or bad. Intentional we must be about the path we walk.



#22 | THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

“THE SHOW MUST GO ON—the saying and principle originated in the nineteenth century with circuses. If an animal got loose or a performer was injured, the ringmaster and the band tried to keep things going so that the crowd would not panic.” —James Rogers

In 1938 the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was, in fact, “the Greatest Show on Earth.”

Their annual tour opened in the spring of that year with a twenty-three-day sojurn at Madison Square Garden. The circus was so popular that it performed twice daily in New York (forty-six shows in all) before caravanning north, to Boston. This was America’s most famous traveling show, and it would take only one day off before ending the season in Mobile, Alabama, six months later.

I’ve always loved the circus. For Christmas one year our daughter Sydney gave me a framed copy of an original poster from that 1938 tour stop in Manhattan. The festive scene features a giant elephant and two clowns in the foreground with the big top and its colorful flags as the backdrop. Few who attended that year would have guessed that the elephant, the iconic star of the three rings, would one day play a leading role in the circus’s demise.

* * *

In 2016, the Ringling pachyderms marched off stage for the final time in response to public concerns about their treatment as circus show animals. This was a little recognized but pivotal moment in the dawning of the age of dispersed power. The physical and emotional well-being of a small herd of elephants was taking precedence over the economic needs of an entire industry. For those paying attention, it was a sign of the times indeed.

One year later, on Sunday, May 5, 2017, my wife Alison and I traveled from Maine to Providence, Rhode Island, to watch the last-ever performance of the Ringling Bros. Circus extravaganza.

“The elephant that once made the circus helped to end the circus,” I said to Alison that night from our tight row of plastic seats inside the dilapidated Dunkin’ Donuts Center.

We had just watched the last act of the famed Ringling Bros. tigers. Their trainer, Taba Maluenda, and his felines received a five-minute standing ovation. Former Ringling Bros. employees from around the world were on hand to bear witness. The tigers themselves seemed to know it was over.

“Sunday night the lights went out on the Greatest Show on Earth,” reported the Providence Journal the following day. For me, it was the night the tiger trainer cried and one of the most historic and symbolic moments of the twenty-first century.

* * *

What’s the lesson here? It wasn’t the elephants that changed; rather, humanity’s sense of right and wrong evolved. This brings forth an important point: An idea that is helpful in one era can actually be detrimental, or even fatal, in the next.

The well-being of a small group of elephants had become more important to society than the circus empire as a whole.

Power was being dispersed.

The individual (in this case, elephants) was coming first.

Putting individuals second and organizations first may well have helped empires grow for centuries. But today, self-centered governance is a leading cause of human disengagement and institutional ineffectiveness, and the clock is ticking on this hierarchical dance of old.

The playbook of leadership and followership is turning itself inside out. The old model of leadership was about pulling power to the center and making the influence of the capital or headquarters bigger. The new model that is manifesting before our eyes is about pushing that same power back out and learning to see the individual human spirit as the first priority and power source of society.

* * *

On the way out of the arena after that final circus show, I purchased two stuffed Ringling Bros. elephants. For me they were historic pieces of Americana, now part of the past. They were also, in a way, mascots for the future of organizational and human advancement. Like the lesson itself, they were expensive yet priceless.

(This essay is an excerpt from Kevin’s second book, THE SEVENTH POWER: One CEO’s Journey into the Business of Shared Leadership.)

* * *

Thank you for considering my thoughts. In return I honor yours. Every voice matters. Nestled between our differences lies our future.

“They say that somewhere in Africa the elephants have a secret grave where they go to lie down, unburden their wrinkled gray bodies, and soar away, light spirits at the end.”
—Robert McCammon

_______________

This is the twenty-second in a series of short essays to be posted by Kevin Hancock to www.thebusinessofsharedleadership.com in 2021, in honor of Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux holy man who was escorted as a child on a sacred vision quest by the 48 horses of the four directions to visit the six Grandfathers. My horses, prancing they are coming. They will dance; may you behold them. On that journey Black Elk understood the sacred power that dwelled within him and lives within us all. He also recognized that this power could be used for good or bad. Intentional we must be about the path we walk.



#9 | HENRY, MAMIE, EDDIE, AND BUTCH

2021 IDEA-SHARING ADVENTURE SERIES BY KEVIN HANCOCK

“Your choices and efforts, be they small or grand, define who you are.”

—Richelle Goodrich

Henry and Mamie Wilson migrated north from South Carolina to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1921.

“I believe he was about the first black man they ever hired at US Steel,” his son Tim would tell me nearly one hundred years later as we sat together at the Yordprom Coffee Co. on the uphill side of Congress Street in Portland, Maine. “He was the janitor there for forty-three years.

“My mom was just as sharp as my dad,” Tim continues. “Her name was Mamie Mobley Wilson. She was the cleaning lady at Suburban General Hospital. Everybody loved her too.”

Now well into his seventies, Tim is wearing a black sweat suit and a Tuskegee Airmen cap, leaning back comfortably in his chair.

As I listen to Tim reflect on his parents’ influence on his life, I contemplate whether Henry and Mamie could have imagined the social contributions that their son would go on to make. Today Tim Wilson is one of the most respected racial equity leaders in the State of Maine, and the legendary (now retired) director of the internationally recognized Seeds of Peace Camp dedicated to eliminating Arab–Israeli conflict, one teenager at a time.

Can we ever really know what impact we will have on the world simply by doing the little things right, one day at a time?

Two young black janitors from the Jim Crow South were positively impacting the world long after their own deaths through the values and skills they instilled in their son.

Henry and Mamie Wilson’s son, Tim (center, in white) at the Seeds of Peace Camp in Maine.

*          *          *

Henry, Mamie, and Tim’s personal story reminds me of two seemingly disconnected tales that my friend Angus King recently shared with me.

Tale #1

Many years ago, Al Capone virtually ruled Chicago. Capone owed much of his position and freewheeling lifestyle to his exceptional lawyer, known locally as “Easy Eddie.”

To show his appreciation, Capone paid Easy Eddie very well. Eddie and his family lived on an estate so large that it filled a city block. Eddie enjoyed the high life of the Chicago mob and gave little consideration to the atrocities that went on around him.

But Eddie had a soft spot for his son, whom he loved dearly. And despite his involvement with organized crime, Eddie tried to teach his son right from wrong.

Even with all his wealth and influence there were two things Eddie couldn’t give his son: a good name, and a good example.

One day, Easy Eddie reached a difficult decision. He wanted to rectify his wrongs.

He decided he would go to the authorities and tell the truth about his boss, Al Capone, in hopes of cleaning up his tarnished name and offering his son some integrity. To do this, he would have to testify against the Chicago mob.

Within a year, Eddie’s life would end in a blaze of gunfire.

Tale #2

World War II produced many heroes, and one such man was Butch O’Hare.

Butch was a fighter pilot in the South Pacific assigned to the aircraft carrier Lexington.  

One day his entire squadron was sent on a mission. En route Butch realized his fuel levels were unexpectedly low and his flight leader ordered him to return to the carrier. Reluctantly, Butch dropped out of formation and headed back to the fleet.

On his return he spotted a previously undetected squadron of Japanese aircraft speeding toward the American fleet.

Laying aside all thoughts of personal safety, Butch dove into the Japanese formation. His wing-mounted .50 calibers blazed as he charged in, attacking one surprised enemy plane after another. He continued the solo assault until all of his ammunition was spent. Undaunted, he pressed the confrontation until the Japanese planes veered off in another direction. Butch and his tattered fighter then limped back to the carrier, having destroyed five enemy aircraft. The date was February 20, 1942.

For his actions Butch became the US Navy’s first ace of World War II, and the first naval aviator to win the Medal of Honor. Later that year, at the age of twenty-nine, he was killed in aerial combat. Today Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is named in his honor.

So what do these two seemingly disparate stories have in common?

Butch O’Hare was Easy Eddie’s son.

*          *          *

We don’t know the full impact we will have on this world. What you do today counts, no matter how marginalized or small you might feel. A stone cast into the water ripples long after we’ve moved on from watching it expand. Humanity is anchored and defined by those who never considered themselves famous or extraordinary.

“Ordinary people do great things every day.”

—Jim Valvano

 

* * *
Thank you for considering my thoughts. In return I honor yours. Every voice matters. Between our differences lies our future.

____________________

This is the ninth in a series of short essays to be posted by Kevin to www.thebusinessofsharedleadership.com in 2021. Kevin is dedicating these writings in honor of Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux holy man who was escorted as a child on a sacred vision quest by the 48 horses of the four directions to visit the six Grandfathers. My horses, prancing they are coming. They will dance; may you behold them. On that journey Black Elk understood the sacred power that dwelled within him and lives within us all. He also recognized that this power could be used for good or bad. Intentional we must be about the path we walk. To invite others to join The Business of Shared Leadership and receive these posts, just pass this link along. The more who join, the deeper the energy field of engagement will become! Thank you!



#5 | ORIGINS

2021 IDEA-SHARING ADVENTURE SERIES BY KEVIN HANCOCK

Bureaucracy and social harmony are inversely proportionate to each other.”

Leon Trotsky

What are the origins of bureaucracy?

How did “power” historically become centralized in command-and-control hierarchies?

How did certain groups come to exert a defining influence over others?

The answer, at its most fundamental level, is through stories backed by force and force justified through stories.

Slavery was a story backed by force. The subjugation of indigenous peoples across the Americas was also a story backed by force. The September 11, 2001, attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center is another story backed by force. A traditionally male-dominated society was, and is, a story backed by force. In all cases a narrative defining the superiority of one group and the inferiority of another is required in order to “justify” the inhumane actions required to establish and maintain dominance.

Both the Roman emperors and the European monarchs of the early and Middle Ages reigned on the basis of a story known as the “divine right of kings.” This tale, which became accepted as doctrine and was reinforced by the Church, stated that kings ruled with the backing of heavenly powers.

“The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon Earth,
for the kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon Earth and sit upon God’s throne,
but even by God himself they are called Gods.”

—James I of England (1610)

Across the Western world this divine right was conveyed upon kings by another co-conspiring hierarchy, the Church.

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.
For there is no power but of God: the powers that are ordained of God.
Whoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God:
and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”

—Romans 13

All of this presumes a God who takes sides and is vengeful against those who do not follow “his” word.

In the quest to be fully conscious it’s interesting to note that the dominant conclusion of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism is of a hierarchical God who reigns from above, sends commandments below, and judges all. While this may be the case, it’s not the only interpretation. It does, however, conveniently set a precedent for human organizations to follow.

Indoctrination is defined as “the process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.” The key word here is “uncritically.” These beliefs must become so deeply rooted over time that they exist largely unquestioned.

European Americans of the nineteenth century convinced themselves that native peoples were less-worthy humans and therefore exploitable. Southern plantation owners built their society upon the same narrative about people who were black. Slavery and reservations were actually considered “good” and “necessary” for the people subjected to them.

These are dramatic examples of hierarchies established by stories and force, but the model also manifests in more-subtle ways. The place of work, for example, has traditionally been organized around a similar pattern, a ladder of importance and control. The owner and the interests of the business are paramount. The employees, meanwhile, are subservient to the company and expected to follow the instructions that flow down from above.

It can be numbing to consciously confront the origins of our dominant leadership models. It gives me pause to even type these words. I am a white male CEO of a family business. My position in this world came in part through inheritance, as was true of my dad, his dad, and beyond, for six generations. Traveling centuries back in time, a piece of my opportunity emanated from the divine right of kings. Reconciling this and deciding what to do about it has become a priority for me.

In the end, I can’t change when and where I was born—I do have a company and I am leading it—but I can try to change how that company engages with others and expand the mission it exists to serve.

This is what brings me to champion the concepts of shared leadership, redistributed power, respect for all voices, and the creation of employee-centric companies that prioritize the people who work there.

Across human history, power has been centralized. But, like anything that travels in a circle, it can be given back. The fundamental building block of personal power is self-worth—the internal knowing that you are sacred. Today’s “kings” must honor this truth by re-dispersing their power.

The first step in creating a new and more-collaborative model for leadership is the uncomfortable task of acknowledging the old one.

“Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible.”

Javier Salcedo

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Thank you for considering my thoughts. In return I honor yours. Every voice matters. Between our differences lies our future.

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This is the fifth in a series of short essays to be posted by Kevin to www.thebusinessofsharedleadership.com in 2021. Kevin is dedicating these writings in honor of Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux holy man who was escorted as a child on a sacred vision quest by the 48 horses of the four directions to visit the six Grandfathers. My horses, prancing they are coming. They will dance; may you behold them. On that journey Black Elk understood the sacred power that dwelled within him and lives within us all. He also recognized that this power could be used for good or bad. Intentional we must be about the path we walk. To invite others to join The Business of Shared Leadership and receive these posts, just pass this link along. The more who join, the deeper the energy field of engagement will become! Thank you!