Saturday, February 14, 2009

On being authoritative

Last Sunday, I wrote an essay on power, talking about moving our culture from one where power is based on dominance to one of partnership. I'd like to dig a little deeper on that topic this week. In my professional life I've been exposed to some knowledge that has helped me understand the dilemmas we face in understanding what partnership looks like.

A psychologist by the name of Diana Baumrind developed a theory about types of parenting based on two factors: demandingness and responsiveness. With that, she developed four styles of parenting:

1. Rejecting - not demanding or responsive
2. Permissive - responsive but not demanding
3. Authoritarian - demanding but not responsive
4. Authoritative - both responsive and demanding

For our purposes, I'll simply ignore the rejecting style. That's because, in a system where power is based on dominance, we tend to focus on a style of relating that is either authoritarian or permissive. The former are the dominators and the later are the dominated. This all fits in nicely with the recent application of parenting styles to the political arena in the discussion about authoritarianism and John Dean's book Conservatives Without Conscience.

So when we analyze political interactions, we tend to see the partisanship of the authoritarian style as one option and the bipartisanship of permissiveness (or appeasing) as the other. Given only a frame of power based on domination, we're faced with an either/or dilemma and will choose domination any day in a high stakes play for power. In my way of seeing things, this is what leads to everything from flame wars to actual wars.

But what this literature tells us is that there is a third way...authoritative. In the parenting literature, this is how that style is described:

These parents set standards, but also give their child choices. They recognize the good things that their child does, but they do not overlook the bad things. These parents are more confident and nurturing.


One of the parenting experts I worked with for years, Jean Illsley-Clarke used to talk about the importance, especially when dealing with teenagers, of knowing what's negotiable and what's not. Then you know where there's room to give and where you have to take a stand. Most relationships require a little of both. And any coalition that is going to have an impact will require it as well. As Bernice Johnson Reagon said:

There is an offensive movement that started in this country in the 60's that is continuing. The reason we are stumbling is that we are at the point where in order to take the next step we've got to do it with some folk we don't care too much about. And we got to vomit over that for a little while. We must just keep going.


An authoritative position is one of great strength. But its not the strength of getting someone else to do what you want them to do by the force of fear and/or violence (of words or actual weapons). As a co-worker of mine says, the minute you feel like you have to prove that you deserve respect, you've lost the battle. If you know what you believe, as well as what's negotiable and what's not, you can enter a conversation with anyone about anything without having to be passive and give in or get defensive and go into dominance mode. Here's John F. Kennedy at his inauguration making a strong and powerful case for partnership during the time of a high stakes battle for world domination with the Soviet Union.



So whether we're talking about the global struggle, national politics, blog discussions, or personal relationships, it all comes down to having a sense of security in what you believe and in your own power. That's the hard part. But for me, its where my evolution is happening as we speak.

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