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The Professor Makes A Minus Power Move

If you think the power move has costs, consider the alternative. We are talking -- four friends -- bringing one another up to date on our personal and professional lives.

David is department chair at the university; he is depressed. "Bummed out," he says. "I find myself withdrawing, caring less and less about the department, the school."

We are stunned; just a month ago David was so enthusiastic about the possibilities he saw for creating a dynamic department. This is a man who deeply cares about relationships and family and here was his chance, as department chair, to create a caring professional community. He had just overseen a series of interviews with a promising candidate. "She is terrific, she has great energy, her research work is solid, and I think she impressed everyone she met." This was to be an important beginning, and David was charged up.

"So what happened?" we ask. "The Dean," says David with considerable disgust. "The Dean said he'd support her appointment, but not with tenure. And without tenure we weren't going to get her. Without the Dean's support it just wasn't going to happen. So we lost her."

We then drifted into a conversation about the Dean, his personal deficiencies, his weak leadership, his vision for the school (which was never anyone else's vision), and particularly about his aversion to diversity issues and women's studies, the rejected candidate's research areas. "He's a chauvinistic pig," says David, "all that feminist stuff makes him nervous." Then the conversation gets into speculation as to how much longer the dean will be around, what his employment prospects are.

And so the hope for departmental salvation appears to lie in waiting for the Dean's retirement.

At this point Max speaks up. "I can't believe this conversation. Your most powerful strategy is to sit here fantasizing about when the dean will leave. What about power? I looked at the listing of the nation's top one hundred schools, and yours was nowhere to be seen. What does that say about the Dean's leadership? And does that poor showing give you some leverage?"

Max then looks at Dan. "The same thing happened to you. What was it, ten years ago? They screwed you on tenure, and you just walked away with your tail between your legs."

Dan recalls a dream he had at the time. "I was leading a protest march; there was this army of students and faculty behind me." "Sure," says Max, "but that was your dream; in the wide-awake world you just walked away." Where is power?

Dan has a thought about that question. "You know," he says to David, "You could have resigned the chairmanship, or at least threatened to. You could have said to the Dean, "I'm department chair, and it's my judgment that this candidate with tenure is just what the department needs. If you are not going to support my judgment on this, then I'm afraid I'll just have to resign."

The conversation at this point becomess more electric. What might such a move have accomplished? Maybe nothing. "Sorry to see you go," says the Dean. But maybe it gets the Dean to think; it certainly makes clear the strength of David's commitment. And his resignation would cause some difficulties for the Dean.

David is thoughtful. Dan's notion has much appeal, and it is frightening (a combination that inevitably accompanies the emergence of a power move.) "I would have been all alone on this; there would have been no faculty support, we are just too diffuse." "Maybe," says Max, "but maybe that's just the kind of leadership move that would have mobilized the faculty." David nods in agreement.

Dan says, "And look at the costs of not making that move. You're depressed; all your enthusiasm for energizing the department is gone; the faculty remains diffused; and you lost a damn good candidate. Meanwhile the Dean comes away unscathed."

David continues to be deep in thought. "You know what strikes me," he says, "the move never entered my mind. It's not like I thought about it and rejected it; I just never saw it."


Limit Situations (Reference to Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

I just never saw it. David's illumination gets to the heart of the limit situation. It is not some clear challenge that the actor faces and then chooses to take on or not. It is rather an option that is invisible to the actor. At the point of the limit situation, the actor sees no choice. The Dean's "No" is the end, in Vieira Pinto's words (cited by Freire), the "impassable barrier." It is "the given." It is only with a flash of insight, or a working through of one's depression, anger or anxiety, or, as in this case, through dialogue, that the invisible becomes visible, that one can "negate and overcome the given" (Freire's words), that "impassable boundaries where possibilities end" become "real boundaries where all possibilities begin."

Strangely,the clues to opportunities for power lie in those moments when we are feeling angry, hopeless, and powerless.

Barry Oshry
Chief Theoretical Officer
Power + Systems, Inc.

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