Balance of Power by Linda Kohanov
By Linda Kohanov
Linda Kohanov’s new book, The Power of the Herd explores the history of nonpredatory power, and offers practical skills for cultivating this emotionally and socially intelligent form of leadership.
Over a hundred years ago, a budding naturalist noticed that mutual aid was a significant factor in determining fitness for survival. Pyotr Alekseevich Kropotkin, an early fan of Darwin’s theories, led research expeditions through Siberia and Eurasia, planning to add his own observations to the scientific literature on evolution. But soon enough, he was confused and, initially at least, sorely disappointed.
“I failed to find — although I was eagerly looking for it — that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution,” Kropotkin wrote in his 1902 book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.
He was even more disturbed by the fast-growing relationship between Darwinism and sociology, emphasizing that he “could agree with none of the works and pamphlets that had been written upon this important subject. They all endeavored to prove that Man…may mitigate the harshness of the struggle for life between men; but they all recognized at the same time that the struggle for the means of existence, of every animal against all its congeners, and of every man against all other men, was ‘a law of Nature.’” In Kropotkin’s experience, this potentially destructive view “lacked confirmation from direct observation.”
Kropotkin cited hibernation, food storage, and seasonal migration as instinctual efforts to avoid competition. What’s more, he emphasized that adult herd animals were dangerous prey: “In the Russian Steppes, [wolves] never attack the horses otherwise than in packs; and yet they have to sustain bitter fights, during which the horses sometimes assume offensive warfare….If the wolves do not retreat promptly, they run the risk of being surrounded by the horses and killed….”
Mutual aid, he insisted, was significant on both sides of that classic drama. But the sheer numbers of non-predatory species living peacefully with each other was even more of a revelation to the Russian prince.
The Power of the Herd
An over-simplification of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” concept is still used to justify predatory business practices and political movements. Yet long before I encountered Kropotkin’s writings, my own horses challenged widespread notions that prey animals were quivering victims living at the mercy of powerful predators. My stallion Merlin, who would let squirrels share his grain, dealt harshly with aggressive dogs wandering into his space, sometimes grabbing a stunned canine by the neck and tossing it toward the gate. His otherwise gentle mare Rasa would cheerfully, playfully chase coyotes out of their pasture. These and other incidents caused me to update my perceptions---and my language---regarding the relationship between predator and prey. I began to study the benefits of non-predatory power, realizing that my staff and clients no longer had to associate strength, bravery, and protection with carnivorous metaphors.
A particularly dramatic YouTube video, “Battle at Kruger,” offers a potent illustration, capturing an altercation between lions and water buffalo. The action starts with a bull, a cow, and their calf walking toward a large watering hole. Several massive cats suddenly leap out of hiding and race toward the calf, pulling her down with such momentum that she skids down a small hill and plunges into the pond. There a crocodile tries to steal this convenient meal away.
Working together, several water-logged lions drag the unfortunate bovine back to shore. Yet just as they’re about to take that fatal bite, her parents return---with reinforcements---namely an angry mob of close to fifty buffalo. One nervy bull leaps forward and scoops a lion up with his horns, tossing her six feet in the air. The rest of the herd gains leverage as a result, scattering lions in all directions, surrounding the now standing calf.
This video documents sophisticated nonverbal coordination between herbivores, with concern for a single youngster motivating the kind of altruistic courage we would call “heroic” in humans. Clearly, adult herd animals are not the dim-witted, cowardly weaklings they’ve been made out to be by human philosophers and scientists who over-identify with their own predatory tendencies.
Natural herd behavior illustrates that power does not have to harsh, exploitive, oppressive, or short-sighted when we temper ambition with well-timed acts of mutual aid and competition avoidance. In this respect, it’s important to remember that human beings are not carnivores. We are omnivores with characteristics of both predator and prey. The idea is as old as the Bible. Predictions that “the lion shall lie down beside the lamb in paradise” point to a balanced human psyche in which the predatory aspect harmonizes with a gentler form of wisdom.
In today’s highly competitive business environment, however, we need to take this metaphor one step further, cultivating the skills associated with mature, fully empowered, nonpredatory animals. In this respect, one herbivore stands out from all the rest.
From an evolutionary perspective, the horse is an astonishing enigma, a prey animal willing to endure the horrors of war and the uncertainty of the unknown, carrying riders around the world for reasons that still boggle the mind, sometimes receiving medals for exceptional bravery along the way. History clearly shows that humans were also transformed by this interspecies relationship. Many innovative leaders exercised courage, charisma, poise, endurance, and conviction through lifelong associations with silent, nonpredatory tutors. Alexander the Great, the Buddha, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, George Washington, Katherine the Great, Geronimo, Winston Churchill, and Ronald Reagan were accomplished equestrians who had close relationships with spirited, arguably heroic horses. Their mounts were not mindless machines. They required---and fostered---an almost supernatural level of leadership presence capable of motivating others to face outrageous odds and create innovative, highly ambitious empires.
At the same time, training and caring for horses demanded an understanding of how to tap resources without taxing them. In the process, some leaders adopted, then adapted, nonpredatory behavior to deal more effectively with human beings. George Washington is the most notable example. His ability to stand up to a much larger, better trained, exceedingly well-funded, intensely predatory British army rested on a physically and emotionally heroic form of nonpredatory power. “Let your heart feel for the affliction, and distress of everyone,” he advised. In Washington’s courageous presence, people were able to endure incredible hardships because they knew he cared.
The Lion and the Horse
Insulated from nature, modern civilization treats people more like machines than sentient beings while overemphasizing predatory power. For this reason, creative, empathetic innovators are sometimes reluctant to step into leadership roles. Yet our troubled institutions need strong, compassionate leaders now more than ever. Learning to recognize and cultivate nonpredatory power is essential to regaining balance.
The predatory side of human nature is especially useful in culling those business practices, behaviors, and beliefs that need to die a quick, humane death so that everyone can survive the winter---and thrive during the spring, summer, and fall---allowing us to curtail rabid conquest and growth in favor of a co-creative, mutually beneficial balance with nature and “neighboring tribes.” Other activities---such as setting strong boundaries with aggressive herd members, leading, and negotiating with, even fighting, predators---can be achieved through non-predatory approaches to power.
Awareness is an important first step: When promoting or hiring new leaders, it’s helpful to notice how often the various candidates use predatory modes of thinking and behaving. Whenever possible, choose people who exhibit power and expertise combined with nonpredatory tendencies, a simple way to lessen the common yet ironic possibility that you will actually pay someone to become his or her prey. The following chart offers a quick look at how these opposite yet interconnected power principles play out in nature:
*Nourishes self at others’ expense
*Values territory over relationship
*Fight to the death impulse is strong
*Culls the weak Shields the weak
(Must hide vulnerability at all cost)
*Rules through intimidation
*Purposefully escalates fear
*Supports individual and group needs simultaneously
*Values relationship over territory
*Stops fighting when aggressor backs off
(Vulnerable individuals can rely on others)
*Leads through experience, curiosity, and the ability to calm and focus others during crisis
*Conserves energy for true emergencies
*Cooperation/Mutual Aid orientation
Based on the book The Power of the Herd. Copyright © 2013 by Linda Kohanov.