When movers and shakers in the world declare that they feel powerless, it is time to take notice. In the past week, several people I consider teachers and leaders of the highest order have made precisely this declaration with reference to the war in Iraq. I did not argue with them. Yet as the murmur of their words settled in my mind, I began to sense that this moment in history calls for a richer response. It is not that the feeling of lacking efficacy is untrue. Instead, this feeling is but one of many truths – and, of these, the least likely to be helpful.
When we say that we lack power and criticize people we think have it, we are engaging in what Harvard researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey call the language of complaint. This language is pervasive in our organizations and families. Indeed, it is so common that we hardly notice it. It is particularly prominent when compared with declarations of what we truly care about, or the language of commitment.
What is wrong with a culture where it is more permissible to complain than to state our commitments? Nothing, other than (a) life becomes less fulfilling and (b) it’s harder to get things done. This is why it is so painful to be part of conversations lamenting the war and the futility of our actions. It is also why we can’t seem to find an alternative to them. [Read more…] about Waking Up The World [March 2003]