We Have a Power Problem!

NHS – we have a problem! This blog forms a hiatus in the middle of a 4 blog mini-series about what I call the four rings of leadership (in the context of healthcare). I have been musing on some statements made at the IHI conference in London, Quality 2017, and before I go any further, I want to take a pause to reflect on the notion of power. Helen Bevan says that the number one issue facing our health care system is the issue of power. I would suggest that unless we seriously reflect on power and how it manifests itself in our systems and in us as individuals, then we will never be able to co-create health and well-being in our society.

 

In my last blog, I mentioned an excellent talk that I heard Derek Feeley of IHI and Jason Leitch, the CMO of Scotland, give together about our need to “cede” power, if we are to build safe, high quality, economically sustainable health systems. They contend that we need to move from keeping power, to sharing power and then ceding power. To cede power, means to transfer/surrender/concede/allow or yield power to others. I do believe this is correct. I believe that true leadership is absolutely about being able to ’empty out’ positions or seats of power, so that all are empowered to effect positive change and build a society of positive peace. However, my contention is this: ceding power is not helpful unless we first deal with the very nature of power. Once we have dealt with its very substance can we truly cede it through our organisations and systems to bring increased well-being for all.

 

I have talked many times over the dinner table with my great friends Roger and Sue Mitchell about the nature of sovereignty and power. Sovereignty is a dominant theme within our political discourse at the moment, at a national and international level. It is worth reflecting that sovereignty (the right to self-govern) is utterly intertwined with our understanding of power, and we need to pull the two apart if we are ever to cede the kind of power that can transform the future. If we do not recognise (have a full awareness/deeply know) this, we will continue to inadvertently create hierarchical dominance and systems that become the antithesis of what they are created to be.

 

 

We see the issue of sovereign power at work every day in the NHS. We see it in terms of power edicts from on high, without understanding the local context or issues worked through in a relational way. We see it in the way these edicts are then outworked through leadership and management styles, which are very top-down and hierarchical in nature, eating up people like bread in the process – what Foucault calls “Biopower”. We see it in the way wards are managed and in the way GP surgeries are run. Sovereign power says “I’m in charge around here” and “we’re going to do things my way”. We see it in individuals who choose to practice autonomously without thinking about the wider implications on the system, prescribing however they would like to, without thinking about the cost implications. We see it in the attitude of some patients, when it becomes about “my rights” with an unbearable or unaffordable pressure put onto the system. If we multiply sovereign power, we simply end up with lots of  kings and queens who defend their own castle, creating more barriers, walls and division in the process. Sovereign power is defunct and dangerous and it is this which is currently destroying our ecosystems and wider society. The “I did it my way” approach is rooted in self preservation and ambition and does nothing to help us build health and well-being in society. Sovereign power stands in the way the very social movements we need to see, because Sovereign power is based on fear.

 

Sovereign power has its roots in certain streams of theology and philosophy which have in turn laid the foundation for a way of doing politics and economics based on the supremacy of the state and within that the individual. However, the damaging effects of this are seen on our environment and on community, with utterly staggering levels of inequality, injustice and damage to the world in which we live.

 

If we are to truly cede a power that is effectual in changing the world, then it is not enough to simply reconfigure (rearrange) it, or reconstitute it ( i.e. give it a new structure/share it). First of all, we must revoke it! In other words, we must look ‘Sovereign power’ straight in the eyes and reject it, cancelling it’s toxic effects on our own selves and on that of others. We must change our minds about it and embrace instead a wholly different kind of power. Sovereign power has not changed the world for the better so far, and I hold no hope of it doing so in the future. No, we don’t need Sovereign power and we certainly don’t want to cede it. Instead, we need kenotic power. Kenotic power is based in self-giving, others empowering love (Thomas Jay Oord). It empowers others, not to live like mini-dictators, but to also dance to a very different beat.

 

I used to play the card game bridge, with my Grandpa (he was an amazing man, who invented Fairy Liquid!). In bridge, to revoke something is to fail to follow suit, despite being able to do so. Kenotic power refuses to play the game of Sovereign power. It embraces an entirely different approach. And as many through the ages have found, this kind of power is truly costly, and can even cost you your career or life; but it is the only kind of power that truly changes the world for good. Jesus, Rosa Parks, Emmeline Pankhurst, Gandhi, MLK, Malala Yousafzai, Nelson Mandela, Florence Nightingale and Mother Theresa are just some, who have embraced this ‘self-giving, others empowering love-based power.’ This is the kind of power we need now. We need it in healthcare and in every other part of our society.

 

Kenotic power is vulnerable but it is not about being a door mat. It is like a beautiful martial art, in which we can say “I won’t fight you and you can’t knock me down, unless I let you” In other words, we lay down our rights and power freely, they are not taken from us by force. So, even when energetic attacks are launched against us, this kind of power allows us to move out of the way, allow the attack to pass through and then to come along side the person and help them see another point of view. Switching to this kind of power is far more creative, less combative and far more fruitful in creating a way ahead full of possibilities without the need for making enemies in the process. We must challenge the deep structural belief that our political and economic systems must be built on and can only be held together by Sovereign power. What if we developed systems based on love, trust, joy and kindness, aiming for the peace and wellbeing of all (including the environment?) – what might such a health system be like? It will take a social movement for us to get this shift, and as I wrote in my previous blog: You might call this a re-humanisation of our systems based on love, trust and the hope of a positive peace for all. But this social movement is not aiming for some kind of hippy experience in which we are all sat round camp fires, singing kum-ba-yah! This social movement is looking to cause our communities to flourish with a sense of health and wellbeing, to have a health and social care movement that is safe, sustainable, socially just and truly excellent, serving the needs of the wider community to grow stronger with individuals learning, growing and developing in their capacity to live well.

 

 

I agree wholeheartedly that the most important role of leaders is to cede their power, so that all can truly flourish, where there is a far greater sense of cooperative and collaborative agency within our (health) systems. But if we do not examine the nature of this power, we will only perpetuate our problems.

 
Martin Luther-King said these famous words – they are seriously worthy of our reflection:

 

Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anaemic. Power at its best is love implementing justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

 

 

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What Lies Beneath?

Do you sometimes wonder what is really going on? As the furore around the planned 5-day strikes by junior doctors unfolds, with all the clamour and the noise, the positioning, the power plays, the arguments and the counter-arguments, I wonder where is the truth amidst the madness? How have we reached a stage in which the government and an army of medics, surgeons and psychiatrists are at such loggerheads? What lies beneath all of this?

 

Theresa May, our Prime Minister tell us that “doctors have never had it so good” – I wonder when she last shadowed a Senior Registrar for Acute Medicine on a Friday night in an understaffed hospital? Jeremy Hunt tells us that he is a modern day Aneurin Bevan (I wonder what AB would think of that?!), whilst his shadow counter-part, Diane Abbott retorts that this is a ridiculous suggestion. The PM and the Secretary of State for Health both agree that the junior doctors are playing politics, something the other side refutes, but all agree that this is a disaster and patients lives may well be put at risk. The right wing press tell us it is all about pay and that the doctors are being greedy, whilst the left wing press tell us it is all about an underlying agenda to privatise the NHS. The Junior Doctors admit that some of this is about pay (who would want a significant pay cut for working long and unsociable hours?) but that it is more about resisting a policy to deliver a 24/7, 7/7 NHS, which they believe to be unaffordable and unstaffable due to shortages in funding and recruitment. Senior colleagues appear to be split down the middle in terms of support for the strikes, patient groups are understandably concerned and yet a solution does not appear to be forthcoming.

 

Shouting, anger, fighting, noise, name-calling, power-plays, hate and hollering. So, who will seek the welfare of the people and the nation? Who will make for peace? Both sides tell us this is what they are doing and this is why they stand their ground. The government apparently want to deliver the same standard of service throughout the 7 day week. The Junior Doctors say they are the ones really standing up for the people by resisting that which is unsafe and unfair.

 

So, let us learn from the peacemakers to find a way through. In apartheid South Africa, peace was not reached through hate and vitriol. It took deep courage from men and women to expose lies, to speak truth to power, but most importantly to tell their stories. It was not about the one man, Nelson Mandela, but the many together waking up to an alternative future that was fairer for everybody. In the battle for civil rights in the USA, a nation was awakened to the reality of injustice within its own borders. The story of one woman, Rosa Parks, who refused to be humiliated on a bus became a people movement as numerous as the stars, shining together for an altogether different day. In Rwanda, after the appalling genocide, those who lost everything, found a voice to communicate to their very oppressors, those who had raped and murdered their own families, not only their story, but forgiveness for the atrocities caused and found a way through to a new future. If we want peace and a better future for everybody, then we need to face up to our reality, be willing to really listen and then find that together we can embrace a new future.

 

We have an apartheid of globalisation and free market capitalism across the entire world. Every day, the gap between the rich and the poor is widened. Our entire economic system, founded on the oppression of Empire through expansion (via military violence), the creation of debt (through an errant banking system) and the rule of law (held in place by the state of the exception) is no longer fit for purpose. We see it in the plight of refugees stuck between war and barbed wire fences in a land they cannot call their own. We see it in the disproportionate imprisonment of Black American males in the USA. We see it in the vile island detention centres of Australia. We see it in the slums of New Delhi, the townships of sub-Saharan Africa and the Favelas of South America – in the eyes of children dying from such ridiculous things as diarrhoea and starvation. We encounter it in the streets of Athens and the public squares of Madrid. And yes, we find it in the midst of our NHS and social care system. Our world as we have known it is broken and no matter how much sticky tape or wrapping paper we apply, the centre simply cannot hold. The core is unstable. Everything is shaking. We must have the courage to let go of what we have known and embrace an altogether different future, a future that is fairer for everybody, where things don’t simply trickle down to the poorest, but in which the balances are re-set.

 

We have become slaves of the ‘free market’, fodder of the beast that requires ever more of us. What lies underneath the row over Junior Doctor pay and the forthcoming strikes is a great gaping hole that scares the hell out of many of us. Oh, we can sling mud until the cows come home, but it’s not going to get us anywhere. Top down, pyramidal, heroic leadership that stays its course and demands it’s own way is simply not going to cut the mustard. We must have some brave and difficult conversations about the detrimental effects of making policy from the safety of ivory towers, and learn to really listen to the stories of those affected. We have so much to learn from the Leeds Poverty Truth Challenge, the Homeless Charter in Manchester, the Community Conversations in Morecambe Bay, the Cities of Refuge initiative, the Civil Rights movements, the Mediation work done in Rwanda…..we don’t have the answers right now. The problems facing the NHS are fare more complex than trying to ensure an undeliverable manifesto promise is outworked. We need humility on all sides, collaboration and partnership.

 

It goes deeper than people right across the UK needing to manage their own health and wellbeing more effectively. It is more complex than needing to recognise where there is waste and dealing with it. It isn’t just as straight forward as needing to talk about chronic under-funding and under-recruitment. We face an existential crisis, an ontological question about the future of humanity together. Resting back onto familiar ways of operating or antiquated leadership styles will simply not work for us any more. The black hole we face is either a death or the opportunity for re-birth. A squeeze that will force us into something new. We can’t keep dancing around it forever. We must take the plunge, accept that there is no going back and see what new creation we might just co-create with Love on the other side. Don’t be afraid…….there is light at the other end of the tunnel.

 

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