#143: The Power of the Powerless

“Only by creating a better life can a better system be developed”

Hello my good friends

It’s been a while. I’ve missed you. As I’ve wondered how to restart our conversation, I’ve followed what the world has advised about starting this year.

Experts have shared neatly designed charts showing how quickly we give up on our resolutions. As you’d expect, very quickly. They’ve emphasized that instead, we should reflect on the year that was. Newsletter after newsletter, column after column, has cautioned against having goals too large. This year’s beat seems to be all about tiny habits, taking small steps, having achievable objectives.

I agree. Reflection is powerful. Resolutions without reflection, flimsy. Building from the ground up, powerful. This all made (and still makes) enormous sense. But, as all those sensible words floated around in my brain, I started to wonder what else was going on.

Why this consensus on keeping it all small? It’s as if the world’s music room had been looted, leaving us only with triangles. I felt stifled, a touch oppressed. And slowly, I started to sense that maybe, just maybe, we’re all feeling a little tired, a little helpless and hopeless.

A year ago, we watched the world’s largest economy and democracy under attack. This year, in an eerie echo, we watched a quieter form of violence take forward the haphazard plans of the year before. Intransigence became its own form of insurrection. The world’s sixth-largest economy lost a prime minister in scandal. Got another. Lost her too. In record time. Between this chaos, one country invaded another. Thousands have died terrible deaths. All the violence of war is there. Injuries that will last lifetimes. Nightmares that will shred sleep for decades to come. An already punch-drunk global economy staggered into the ropes where it remains, clinging on, whilst we all hope for a bell to clang, to tell us that we can sit down and rest, but no sound comes. Our planet continues to convulse under our actions. We watch, feeling helpless, confused about what to do.

In this world, it is then no surprise that the experts tell us to keep it small. It is wise advice. It is the kind of guidance I often give and yet, I wondered, is it enough?  If we are feeling hopeless, then perhaps we need something else.

That thought to me back to Václav Havel’s acclaimed essay, The Power of the Powerless (I apologise to my South African readers. The irony was invisible to me until I started to write. To those of you who live elsewhere, South Africa has had unprecedented power outages over the past year intensifying dramatically over the last two months. Today we will be without power for 9 hours in total).

Havel was a writer and a dissident. He was also post-communist Czechoslovakia’s first president. He is a leader who, for some, is spoken of in the same breath as Nelson Mandela.

He wrote The Power of the Powerless in 1978. It was a dark period of brutal oppression. He was jailed. Friends were tortured. Some died. There was little to suggest that communism would crumble. Yet, he wrote this essay. He kept hope alive.

Eleven years later, in an address entitled Words on Words, he said “The point is that all events in the real world – whether admirable or monstrous – are always spearheaded in the realm of words”.

As you read, I hope that you feel inspired to enter this year armed not only with the power of reflection and the armored mesh of small habits but with the possibilities of your power, of holding the dream to make your world, our world, a better place.

Havel describes Czechoslovakia as post-totalitarian. He uses this phrase to explain that it was more than the brute force of dictatorship, that the intersection of ideology (‘workers of the world unite’) and law (‘anti-revolutionary activities’) created control. Together they maintained the illusion of normality whilst underneath festered fear and oppression.

Towards the end of his essay, Havel contemplates whether we might also describe democracies as ‘post-democracies’, equally alienated from ordinary life, with self-serving political parties locked into obscure rituals with each other, making bizarre, nonsensical pronouncements, whilst we all look on, alternating between bemusement and horror.

At this point, you’re saying “Come on Karl! This isn’t helping. I feel worse”. I know. Me too, but Havel rescues us.

In both systems, ironically, it is the efforts to control that reveal where power lies.

He asks why ban songs or books, or private decisions – who to love for instance – when they have no intrinsic power.

He answers that we ban them because they reveal that we are structured for control, not freedom. Their power derives not from politics but from their truth. Beautifully, buried in the banning is a treasure, the truth that our authentic existence is to love, to connect, to create, to express, to care. The elaborate efforts to control in turn tell us where our power lies.

And so, reclaiming our power means we must “live within the truth”. And within that, we must claim our sense of self. We must know who we are, not who we are told to be or think we should be. To take responsibility and to act accordingly. To express ourselves, to connect with others. To care, to work for something that is more than self-serving compliance.

Havel cautions that there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’, that “society is not sharply polarized…but the fundamental lines of conflict run right through each person”.

We all comply to get along. We all sense that we have our truth. To be powerful we must navigate both.

He tells us to “shed the burden of traditional political categories and habits and open oneself up fully to the world of human existence”.

You might think to yourself, “But, I’m a CEO, a founder, a manager, I just want to run my business/my division. This has nothing to do with me”.

Think about it this way. We know that the primary ingredient of any high-performing team is that people are able to work every day using their unique strengths. We know that any virtuoso performance is idiosyncratic. We know that high-performing companies are made up of high-performing teams with individuals who perform well together. Those high performers perform well when they know that their colleagues have their backs when there is trust. Trust is built when you are listened to, and you know that someone is genuinely committed to helping you be your best. And so, you want to live within your truth. You want your colleagues to live within their truth. You want to create the space and freedom for everyone to shed traditional categories and be open to the fullness of being human.

So, we might feel powerless, but Havel provides hope. Living our truths, not necessarily in pre-defined political (or corporate) ways, but in ways that improve our lives and those of our communities have unfathomable consequences, ones that you can’t predict but that will come.

He says, “every piece of good work is an indirect criticism of bad politics”.

The same is true at work. You might work in a massive organisation (or a small one) where you feel that you have no influence. You can still do good work. For yourself, for those around you. It will have an impact.  Probably not immediately, but change will come.

You might confront an ethical dilemma. You might feel you have no choice. Pause, before you act. You might need to comply to ‘go along’ to secure your family’s livelihood, but what space is there? Could it be approached differently? There often is. You might not get a complete solution, but you can make it better.

He reminds us  “A better system will not automatically ensure a better life. In fact, the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed”.

And so, we end where we began, by keeping it small. But now we have a dream.  Act intentionally, knowing that the world we create, will permeate into other spheres.

Havel calls it biological warfare. We can infect our environments with love, hope, connection, listening, seeing, trust and excellence.

Remember, ‘the fundamental lines of conflict run through each person’.

Make your world a model of the world you want. Getting it right for yourself will inspire someone else.

In the words of my good friend, Marlon Parker, “Make Hope Contagious”.

It’s good to be back. Thank you for reading. Say hi, I’d love to hear from you.


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