The opening line of the preface sums up the focus and intent of this marvelous book: “Learning to share power is the challenge of the twenty-first century.” This means power with, not power over, others. Like her previous (and equally excellent) book, The Power of the Herd, this one is based on the insights Kohanov learned from working with horses. She insists this is not something new she has invented, but ancient wisdom people knew when they were still nomadic herders but that was lost when we became sedentary and “civilized.” I don’t know whether that’s true, but the techniques and ideas she describes are astounding in their depth and simplicity, and in the possibilities they offer for creating a more compassionated, connected, and collaborative world.
The central theme of the book is the idea that there are five major roles that people undertake to one extent or another when they’re in leadership positions. According to Kohanov, most people focus on just one or two of these roles to the exclusion of the others. This imbalance often brings on dysfunction in the leader’s relationship with their team. Kohanov’s goal is to teach her readers how to use all these roles, each one in its appropriate time and place, in order to create more harmonious and effective collaboration between leaders and the people they work with.
The book is divided into three major sections. Part I, titled “Artifacts and Origins,” dispels many of the common misconceptions about animal intelligence (including our own). Kohanov brings up Peter Kropotkin’s early twentieth century work showing how cooperative behavior is a powerful law of nature that may provide a great advantage for the species that use it. Combined with recent research into the role of oxytocin in social bonding, this information offers hope that a cooperative mindset can take us much further than a competitive one. I find the concept of nonpredatory power to be fascinating and quite attractive. It gives me hope that we can turn our world into something better, one person at a time.
The persistent image of people as predators really bothers me, and it’s very one-sided. In the wild, predators don’t attack for no reason, but only when they need food. The rest of the time, they co-exist peacefully with whole herds of prey animals. The idea that predators aren’t “on” all the time and that prey animals aren’t scared half to death all the time goes against the stereotype, but research shows it’s accurate.
Kohanov points out that we can choose between predatory and nonpredatory behavior, but in order to do so, we need to learn when each one is appropriate. Being nonpredatory is far more nuanced than just saying that nonpredatory equals prey. This particular idea the author puts forward struck me as quite profound: Predator and prey are roles, not identities. Think about it. Even carnivores can be preyed upon in the wild.
This first section repeats a fair amount of the information Kohanov presented in The Power of the Herd, but that repetition allows this book to function as a stand-alone for readers who haven’t picked up her earlier titles. I didn’t find the repetition to be particularly annoying; in fact, it was helpful to be reminded of much of the research that has been done that supports the book’s aims. To me, the most important point Kohanov makes in this section is that there’s a difference between dominance and leadership. It’s also important to understand that being dominant and being a predator are two different things.
Part II, titled “The Five Roles,” details the roles that are integral to the various aspects and functions of leadership. According to Kohanov, those roles are Dominant, Leader, Nurturer/Companion, Sentinel, and Predator. The point of learning about these different roles is to understand them well enough to be able to develop and use all of them when they’re needed. A good leader knows how to keep the roles in balance and how to judge which role is best for each situation.
Kohanov describes each role in detail, with examples from the animal world and from human business and social interactions. I especially like how she describes the difference between the immature/uncontrolled version of each role and its thoughtful, mature, appropriate use. I saw myself in these descriptions more than once, and not always in the mature version! For each role, Kohanov describes not only the immature and mature characteristics, but also the benefits and challenges each role offers to both individuals and groups.
One thing I found especially helpful was Kohanov’s Power Principles for learning to use my own Dominant energy in constructive ways and to deal with aggressive behavior in others. These are skills women are discouraged from learning in our society, and the author spells them out in detail so I was able to easily apply her ideas to my own life situations.
While the other four roles were interesting, I was deeply moved by Kohanov’s interpretation of the Predator role. It’s often abused by people who relish the ability to destroy the people around them; that’s the most popular impression of this role. But the Predator role also includes the ability to make hard decisions and cull what is detrimental or no longer useful. The most compassionate face of the Predator is the person who holds their aging, ailing pet while it is euthanized. This is a facet of the Predator that I hadn’t really considered before, and that I find quite valuable (as well as heart-rending).
Part III is about balancing the roles and finding a way to fit them all appropriately into our business and social interactions so everyone benefits. Of course, each role has its challenges. As I noted above, most people tend to lean on one or two roles to the detriment of the others. In our society, women are often pushed into the Nurturer/Companion role and men may be judged by how much they do or don’t emphasize the Dominant and Predator roles. But everyone needs all of them. The roles aren’t an identity; they aren’t who you are. They’re skill sets, like driving a car or balancing a checkbook, that have useful roles in various life situation.
Kohanov leads the reader through ways to apply these roles to real life: work situations, social encounters, and family life. The book finishes with the Master Herder Professional Assessment, a questionnaire that shows the reader which roles they tend to emphasize and which ones they tend to ignore. My results were pretty surprising and insightful. Kohanov suggests that you answer the questions with a particular situation in mind: your role in your job, or where you volunteer, or within your extended family. Each of us will tend to emphasize different roles in different life situations, and the questionnaire can be really enlightening.
Once again Linda Kohanov has produced a book that combines fascinating research from the fields of anthropology and biology with her own experience with horses. She has distilled all this information down into a set of roles that everyone will be able to identify with to one extent or another. Better still, she walks the reader through these roles and demonstrates how to balance them in order to improve your career and your professional life and maybe even make the world a better place.
~review by Laura Perry
Author: Linda Kohanov
New World Library, 2016
pp. 238, $24.95