Earlier this week I co-hosted a webinar where we talked about whether freedom, love and hierarchy can co-exist in business.
In it, my partner Diana shared about her experience of coming into relationship with our other partner Paul 4+ years ago, and how, like more and more people I’m coming across these days, she knew that she didn’t want to have a separation or compartmentalisation between her romantic relationship and her work life.
Diana (who is a black belt in Taekwondo and a strong character to say the least) shares that she had always perceived herself to “wear the pants” better than the men, and that when she met Paul, it was the first time she had ever experienced not being able to “top” or “own” the man, and she rapidly fell head over heels in love.
And so, naturally, having met her equivalent of Prince Charming, and in experiencing all the incumbent yumminess of first love, Diana wasn’t interested in Paul’s attention going elsewhere for 12+ hours a day in a startup endeavour that she wasn’t involved in, or vice versa.
After all, they had already been talking about their respective visions and how they were both complementary and aligned, so it felt natural to her that they would be pursuing a shared vision and co-creating something together.
Shortly after Diana met Paul, the 4 of us (it was originally 7) gravitated together for a variety of reasons and, with our diverse skill sets and resonant views on the world, chose to co-create our shared business endeavour together. In addition to the business having room for love, romance and intimate partnership, it was paramount to me (having come first out of corporate and then having started and sold out of my own business) — indeed it was paramount to all of us — that we also had the experience of freedom in business and the ability to consistently maintain access to our individual and collective creativity.
Up until that point, what we had traditionally seen in business were a majority of cases in which the visionary (usually as the person with the clearest creative inspiration and direction, and/or who had contributed the most financial or other resources to the business) would get stuck at the top of the hierarchy, isolated, pedestaled, tied to the business, having to be the one giving all the feedback to a team that was dependent on them and, ultimately, making all the key decisions about what to do.
Then once the business expanded to say 20+ people, the visionary would typically no longer have any creative bandwidth left and would find themselves managing people full time instead.
So, in order not to perpetuate that same dynamic, or instantiate a dependent or co-dependent relationship amongst the members of the core team, and with a view to how we might eventually scale our endeavour more long term, we chose to approach things differently in service of cultivating a dynamic of self-organising interdependence.
Paul surrendered control and majority ownership and refused to scurry or do, well, expressly do anything (other than support the relational dynamics, hold space for the emotions of the rest of the team and just be his natural visionary self) and we became equal partners in the business right from the outset, meaning there was no top down hierarchy instantiated as a permanent governance feature of the business (more on the value of creating impermanent or temporary hierarchies to follow in another post).
And we threw ourselves head first into the social experiment of creating a new approach to small group innovation and governance that put the love, relationships, freedom and creativity first.
Over a period of years what we discovered is that since hierarchy is such a deep cultural groove (that is deeply conditioned from an individual, familial, collective, and archetypal standpoint), there are all these ways that as human beings we’ve become accustomed to looking to a “boss” or “superior” for direction, becoming dependent upon them for validation, approval and resources, and giving our decision-making power away (which is also a handy way for our egos to abdicate responsibility and stay dependent / disempowered).
And in some cases, this works.
In some cases, people are content with dependency or codependency, as well as traditional gender roles. This is often the case with the older generation, or people who operate by “traditional family values,” but is far less palatable to a younger generation in a modern context who operate by very different values (which are more aligned with freedom, fulfilment, creativity, passion and purpose). To them, dependency and codependency often leads to depolarisation of the sexual connection between the partners, and the relationship commonly breaking as well.
The usual default response in modern times is independence, where both partners are off doing their own thing, but that’s not an ideal solution if you have a shared vision and you don’t want to compartmentalise your work and your relationship.
In rarer cases, you can get balanced partnerships, even inside a hierarchical dynamic, where the person at the top benefits from working with his / her partner just as much as the partner benefits from working with them.
There are certainly husband and wife businesses (or other constellations of intimate partnerships) that function well professionally and personally with one partner being the CEO, I even know of a few myself, although admittedly it’s a delicate dance to avoid the kind of depolarisation that stifles the sexual connection.
Which is perhaps why, for Diana, as Paul’s partner, initially there was a way these patterns felt natural; it was comfortable and alluring to snuggle into Paul and it seemed to nicely align with the notions of Prince Charming sweeping the Princess off her feet that we all learnt from the fairy tales.
At least initially.
But over time, given that we had expressly set out to do something different and new, something self-organising and interdependent, something that empowered us all into our leadership, and that particularly empowered the feminine to create the structures as a means to redress the masculine / feminine power dynamics of the current hierarchical model, we got to see how the shadow elements of the old story soon start playing out.
We’ve lived through the experience of all of the ways that the feminine (through Diana as a proxy due to her personal, familial and cultural lens, as well as her attachment to Paul) has engaged subversive power tactics to monopolise masculine attention (Paul’s in this case), manipulate and control things to try to get her own way, and power struggle with him to ensure that his attention was consistently entrained upon her and her desires — largely outside of her conscious awareness.
All of these being the kind of behaviours that directly competed with Paul’s freedom and ability to have consistent access to his creative attention.
And this makes sense.
After all, these things are the very reasons that relationships inside of a traditional hierarchy between a boss and a junior, are typically expressly forbidden by policy for fear of the impact, consequences and types of litigation that could all too easily ensue (which, as a former labour lawyer, I’d had firsthand experience with).
First off, let me say that, as I’ve spoken about before in my article on “Traversing the Invisible Terrain from Game A to Game B,” when you have a clear intention and a shared vision of something that you’re co-creating, as you’re moving toward the actualisation of that vision, anything that is not aligned with the energetic signature of that vision will come up to be addressed, alchemised and / or transmuted such that the prior ways of doing things can be transcended and included (for more information on transcending and including levels of development, you can check out Integral Theory).
As a way to demonstrate what it might look like to redress the entrenched masculine / feminine power balance (and just to be clear, this is referring to masculine / feminine, not man / woman — as we all have both poles, and there are plenty of women at the top of hierarchies currently occupying the masculine pole), let’s bring it to the archetypal level for a moment:
Imagine a medieval King who is trying to focus on coordinating his troops to fight a territorial battle or on colonising a new territory and building out all new infrastructure. Now imagine that his powerhouse of a Queen is really pissed at him because of the attention he’s been giving to a concubine lately, and power struggling with him to punish him and get back to being “on top” in her perception — you can imagine how that distraction in such close proximity to a king, whether he’s wanting to give her attention or not, could literally lead to the fall of a kingdom.
Now imagine a scenario in which a more progressive modern day King is seeking to empower his Queen to pursue something meaningful and purposeful to her that aligns with their shared vision, expressly not giving her orders so she’s at choice, empowering her to come up with the structure that their kingdom would operate within and would empower the people, holding space for the uncomfortable emotions that come up for her in the process, and prioritising the emotional / relational health and unconditional love of their relationship as an example that they are setting for their people (because that matters for the actual and perceived strength of the kingdom).
In this latter case, you can see where and why he’s prioritising directing his attention, in support of the Queen actually choosing into her own empowerment, and supporting her to move through anything that gets in the way.
So in that regard, what played out between Paul and Diana on the way to creating a new template of governance that wasn’t based on or riddled with the entrenched patterns and shadows of the traditional power dynamics, was completely natural and normal, and neatly demonstrates the importance and value of having a foundational culture of unconditional positive regard (or unconditional love in the case of Paul and Diana) and all the spaciousness that provides.
At least in our case, it was important that there was space for these things to come up, be witnessed, the emotions to be felt, the impact to be reflected and accepted, the self-judgment let go of, the energetic moved through, and for us all to emerge out the other side, together. It was important to recognise that while of course there was a personalised element to what was happening, Diana and Paul were also playing out these dynamics in service to us collectively moving toward our shared vision.
And each time we did, we became increasingly anti-fragile; we got better and better at being in relationship in a way that didn’t just keep defaulting to the conditioned behaviours, but that honoured the love and provided more and more freedom as the team stepped into our power, as decision-making and responsibility naturally distributed, and as emergent creativity was catalysed.
And since none of the practicalities, shadow elements or other values (like freedom and creativity) get spoken about in the traditional fairy tales, it feels timely and valuable for us to be creating a new template that is a fit for a contemporary world where more and more small groups of people are wanting to come together with the people that they love, in service of collaborative innovations to address many of the biggest challenges humanity now faces.