“Perpetual Pursuers of Power”

Posted by jlubans on June 09, 2015

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Caption. The incomplete human: effects of totalitarianism*

I’m in Prague, that bejeweled city smack dab in the middle of the European continent, landlocked by Austria, Germany, Poland and Slovakia. Its baroque monuments silently testify to a former grandeur; its palaces and churches mutely proclaim power, that peculiar type of power – the coercive, absolute kind - by which one person or family prevail over the rest of us.
Few politicians, as well as CEOs, Executive Directors and other bosses to whom we entrust power would admit, even to themselves, to a naked self-love of power. Of course not! Those pursuing office, elected or otherwise, seek only to serve, to sacrifice so that mankind (or an organization) can achieve its potential.
Here in Prague, the Czech Republic’s Václav Havel – a different seeker of power - comes to mind. Havel was this country’s first democratically elected president, serving from 1989-1992, after openly opposing communist, totalitarian rule for many years. Havel said this in 1991:
“Being in power makes me suspicious of myself”.
I first visited Prague on a cold night in January of 2012, not long after Havel’s death on December 18, 2011. The equestrian statue in Wenceslaus Square was laden with tributes of photographs, flowers and candles, some still kept burning. It showed to me just how beloved Havel was as an author and president.
I have to think that the man’s humility, evident in his quote, had much to do with this sad outpouring of affection and loss.
So, what can Havel suspicions of power possibly mean for the rest of us in positions of authority? Well, are you ever suspicious of why you are there? Why you want to be there?
Do the trappings of office – grand or humble – and the deference of many have an insidious, insulating quality? Do we make self-serving decisions and then rationalize those questionable decisions. Especially ones that help us retain or accumulate power at the expense of someone else? After a while, do we even care?
Is it humanly possible to keep one’s foot on the tightrope of democratic leadership and not trip and fall into the autocratic abyss?
Is my not wanting power – indeed giving it away – an aberration or a character flaw? Or, does the lust for a fear-inducing power over others infect only a small percentage of the population?
Can one be the head of a group and still only have a trivial interest in power?
When in “power” are there not legitimate perks of office only meant to save our time as we go about our important work? That’s a fair enough question and one that Havel raised over and over again. I think Havel did this publicly to stave off the insinuating and seductive ways of power, ways that range from self-serving, to being unaccountable, to doing shameful things shamelessly.
Regardless of where you are on the power continuum, reading Havel’s reflections on power could be of personal value. He ended his “suspicion” speech with a suggestion. “Politics, (or leadership – ed.) therefore, ought to be carried on by people who are vigilant, sensitive to the ambiguous promise of self-affirmation that comes with it. I have no idea whether I am such a person. I only know that I ought to be, because I have accepted this office.”
Sensitive and vigilant, that’s all. And, most of all, willing to question self.


*Monument erected in 2002 on a hillside in Prague to “victims of communism, …to all victims, not only those were jailed or executed but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism.”
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© John Lubans 2015

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