Provision #708: Justice Matters

Laser Provision

When it comes to leadership, what’s more important than power? Principles! Just ask the people of Tunisia and now Egypt. Just remember the other great movements of history. As Mahatma Gandhi once famously quipped: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” In the contest between those with the power to dole out rewards and punishments and those with the principles to stand fast, principles have the upper hand. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Our capacity to endure suffering will outlast your capacity to inflict it.” Principles are like that; they cannot be ignored forever. Leaders in every walk of life would do well to take that into account. This Provision can help.

LifeTrek Provision

The events in Tunisia and Egypt represent the continued triumph of principles over power. Although no one knows where this will go, as two more autocracies are toppled by popular uprisings and democratic movements, it is not hard to pinpoint the trigger that started it all: the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi of Tunisia on December 17, 2010.

In case you missed the story, here is what happened. On that fateful day, Bouazizi, a street vendor, was selling vegetables from his cart, as was his custom. A female police officer confiscated his cart and took his vegetables, allegedly because he did not have a permit (even though no permit is officially required to sell from a cart).

This was not the first time that this had happened, leaving Bouazizi unable to repay his creditors or feed his family. This time, however, the officer slapped him in the face, spat at him, confiscated his electronic weighing scales, and tossed aside his cart. Together with two other officers, she then proceeded to beat him and to utter slurs against his deceased father in the presence of witnesses.

Angered and shamed by the confrontation, Bouazizi went straightaway to the governor’s office to complain. When the governor refused to see him, Bouazizi threatened to set himself on fire unless he received an audience. When the governor still refused to talk with him, Bouazizi acquired a can of gasoline, poured it on himself in front of a local government building, and set himself alight.

Bouazizi died 18 days later, on January 4, 2011, having sparked a protest movement that brought down the Tunisian dictatorship of President Ben Ali before engulfing Egypt’s autocracy and spreading to other Arab nations as well. His dramatic and self-sacrificing stand on principle set in motion a series of unimaginable events that rocked and continue to rock the powers that be.

Principles are like that. When truth speaks to power, to borrow a Quaker phrase, power will sooner or later bow to truth. That was the conviction of the Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, who wrote, in 1853, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

If that sounds familiar, then perhaps that’s because you remember the more lyrical cadence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1967 address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference titled “Where Do We Go From Here?”:

“I must confess, my friends, the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. And there will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted. We may again, with tear-drenched eyes, have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs.”

“But difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. … When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

That is the message of this moment and of this Provision: justice matters. Leaders ignore justice at great peril because justice, in the end, prevails. Principles are stronger than power because principles are intrinsic to life itself. They cannot be denied because they are not a matter of whim or opinion. They are expressions of the core needs that all people share and those needs can only be repressed for so long before they break loose their chains.

The drama in Tunisia and Egypt that is sure to sweep other autocracies sooner or later may seem far removed from the task of leadership in ordinary situations, but I have seen these dynamics play out over and over again. Someone with positional authority, whose box is higher on the org chart than someone else’s, decides to throw his or her weight around in order to get something done.

This can take the form of positive incentives, negative threats, or both. Money is a classic motivator to keep people on task. The more the money, the more people are expected to sacrifice their needs. I have coached and consulted with many leaders in organizational settings, especially around high-pressure projects, and I have seen this happen repeatedly. Money is supposed to make up for misery.

Just ask the king of Bahrain, a small Arab nation in the Persian Gulf. With activists calling for protests, the king ordered each family in the tiny monarchy to be given $2,700. They do that with their oil wealth in Alaska as well. For 2010, each legal resident, including children, receives a dividend of $1,281.

Although such money meets needs for financial security and social advancement, it also creates a rapprochement between people and power. Until it doesn’t. On many occasions I have worked with people who are so miserable that the money just doesn’t matter any more. They quit the job anyway or, worse yet, they stay on the job and cause problems.

That’s when leaders shift from the carrot to the stick. Once money fails to motivate the behavior they want and the results they require, many leaders begin to make life even more miserable for people. Negative performance reviews and periods of probation are accompanied by caustic or dismissive remarks that attempt to shame people into submission.

I have never seen that work. Once trust is undermined in such formal and informal ways, it is very difficult if not impossible to repair. Termination usually follows, and it is often messy at that. It exacts a high price from everyone, including those who leave and the leaders who stay behind. In many such cases, the leaders are soon to be shown the door as well.

That’s because justice matters. There are principles in life that cannot be violated without painful consequences. Life has a curious way of settling the score when those principles are compromised for too long or too severely.

What are those principles? They have a lot to do with universal human needs. I have called attention before to our four-page handout on the Nonviolent Communication process titled “Understanding Needs & Feelings.” Ten primary needs are identified, each of which represent principles that must be honored and met if leaders hope to be effective. We can see how all ten have been playing themselves out in Egypt:

  1. Subsistence: Poverty is rampant, while leaders have squirreled away not just millions but billions.
  2. Work: Unemployment is at all-time highs, while leaders dole out jobs to cronies.
  3. Safety: The violence against Bouazizi was not an exception, with no redress from authorities.
  4. Honesty: Official pronouncements were no match for unvarnished Facebook and SMS messages.
  5. Community: Groups were pitted against each other, at times violently, yet national pride prevailed.
  6. Autonomy: Freedom was the number one priority and the chant could not be silenced.
  7. Empathy: When leaders violate principles, they underestimate compassion as a galvanizing force.
  8. Challenge: Defying people quickens their resolve; courage is found in the moment.
  9. Rest: Leaders beware: weird things happen when people have no rest.
  10. Transcendence: People need wonder, amazement, hope, and possibility • even stunned silence. They have it now.

In the grand scheme of things, justice is a principle that meets many needs, including safety, honesty, community, and autonomy. Although Bouazizi should have never been violated in the first place, he would have not have set himself on fire if the authorities had met his demands for justice. Justice too long delayed is justice denied, and justice denied is intolerable.

Before Bouazizi died in the hospital, a series of increasingly desperate officials came to his bedside to offer apologies and assistance. In the end, the now-deposed President of Tunisia himself made a pilgrimage to that bedside as he struggled to regain control of the situation and the country. It didn’t work.

Principles are like that. All the power in the world is not sufficient to deny human needs. That’s why they are called needs: they are part of the fabric of life itself. Effective leaders do not put ourselves and our power over and against human needs; effective leaders honors those needs and find wise ways to keep them in balance.

Coaching Inquiries: What sensitivity do you bring to human needs? How does that sensitivity effect your leadership? What helps you to lead on the basis of principle rather than of power? How can you keep your emotions in check, even when your power is threatened? How can you balance the competing needs of your people and projects? What kind of coaching would enable you to make this happen?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

Thanks for your life, Bob, and for Dewitt’s neat story in your Provision, Juice Matters. Keep sharing the juice!

I so often feel like you are reading my mind and providing just the perfect guidance or encouragement at just the right times! It’s a wonderful thing and this provision resonates deeply with me. Your writing has this great ability to engage me and stir my juice.

It’s fitting that you speak of Dewitt Jones as I just set my latest National Geographic magazine down to come over and read your weekly provision (a Sunday ritual for me). Additionally, photography is one of my most favorite past times – I seek images that capture the essence of my soul and in the process find my focus gaining evermore clarity. Thanks for the reminder of how important that is.

While reading your Provision, Juice Matters, I was reminded that happiness is not measured by what you possess but rather by how much you enjoy. So the success of your garden is very much about your ability to enjoy it as you watch it evolve. 

Here is my favorite story from our vacation in Mexico over Christmas: We had been in a market in Cancun for a while and Diego, my seven year old, had been listening to me negotiating for various things; which is what I was still doing when I heard him say, “No, no, no, I’ll give you two pesos, two pesos. The vendor said “Three pesos”. And Diego said “Let me tell you how it is.”

As if this assertiveness from a seven year old was not funny enough, since there are 12 pesos in a dollar he was not exactly dealing with high finances, and to top it off he did not have ANY pesos! Attitude is almost everything. Thanks for the Provision which started my day off well. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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