Sex and Power: Interviews with Hugh O'Doherty and Dannielle Kennedy

As we gear up for our innovative Sex and Power Workshop, we wanted to take the time to share some insights from the lead facilitators on these timely topics. From "toxic masculinity" to the unusual learning style favored by group relations. A fascinating interview well worth reading!


Bryant: The #MeToo and #TimesUp movement has generated a lot of headlines in recent times and brought about both renewed vigor and apprehension when it comes to these conversations. Given the emotionally charged nature of this, why take up these topics now?

Hugh: We are in a moment when the whole concept of gender identity is being reconfigured.  However, this re-configuration is not occurring smoothly and systematically.  Individuals are struggling with how to connect to a world that no longer connects gender identity to natural anatomy.  As a society, we are moving beyond a binary understanding of gender identification and to do this, the adaptive leadership framework can be used to provide a foundation for addressing the issues and a powerful lens for diagnosing the ‘adaptive’ challenge(s) needing to be addressed in order to re-configure our understanding of gender identity.

According to a survey commissioned by the LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD, 20% of millennials identify as something other than strictly straight and cisgender (someone whose gender is in line with the sex they were assigned at birth), compared with 7% of boomers. In the survey, more than three-quarters of the roughly 2,000 respondents said it feels like “more people than ever” have “nontraditional” sexual orientations and gender identities.

Politicians are debating the very meaning of words like sex in fights over so-called “bathroom bills.” Several lawsuits are fleshing out the meaning of that word, too, as plaintiffs allege that sexual orientation and gender identity are covered under bans on sex discrimination.

At the same time, there is a growing sense that something is profoundly and inherently wrong with the institution of masculinity. Allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein and since then, a stream of other men, triggered the #MeToo movement. In the past, society would have seen such abuses as boorish acts by individual, nasty men. However, many now are classifying these abuses as ‘toxic masculinity’, the inevitable result of boys raised within the narrow vision of what makes a ‘real man’, traits that drive male behavior to dominance, violence and sexual aggression.

The adaptive leadership framework helps to flush out the ‘adaptive’ challenge(s) that ‘toxic masculinity’ presents. Where is this toxicity coming from? How can it be stopped? Can society’s expectations of what it means to be a man be revised? Is there a way of stopping boys having their vulnerability shamed out of them? How is it possible that a man who boasted of sexual assault can be elected to the most significant public role in the world? How can men, with women as allies, with tenderness and hope, address this challenge?

The current reckoning with the issue of masculinity is disorienting at times, shaming at others, but are mostly necessary and liberating.

Bryant: What attracted you to the group relations methodology and how would you describe it?

Dannie: This is years ago now but earlier in my career I wanted to expand my practice to do more with groups and so I asked for advice from a friend and colleague whose work I admired. He said, "Go to a Tavistock Conference." I didn't do a lot of thinking about it, I just went. It was my first experience with immersive, experiential learning. It was learning from my own experience, from trying things out, learning from mistakes, learning from failing and yes, also from succeeding in real time in front of my colleagues. It was learning in public, so to speak. This kind of learning isn't always pleasant but it is extremely effective. It can be fast, high-impact and lasting. And for me, at my first conference, it was all of that.

The aspect of the methodology that hit me first (and I liked immediately) was the fact that, once we signed up for the task (which was to study the exercise of leadership and authority at the group level in the here-and-now by observing what was happening as it happened) there were no rules for members. There was no teaching and no direction. Some of us felt completely lost when there was no one telling us what to do. There was just an agreement about our task and our roles. 

This agreement, to join in the task of the conference, created a container delineated by boundaries (around time, task, and territory), and in each event we were provided or offered the help of a consultant. The consultant’s job was to observe what was happening in the moment and when it seemed to them like it would be helpful to our shared task, to comment on the process. While participants had no rules, only the task, the consultants were working under the clear authority of the director.

Although the consultants offered observations and musings, they didn't tell us what to do and didn't point out what to learn. The consultant's comments seemed to me at first to be irrational and frustrating, but as I focused, listened, and stayed with my feelings and thoughts in the present, I began to appreciate how helpful the consultations were. The usual niceties of social engagement weren't there, no political correctness or niceties, no attempt to be charming or entertain, just commentary based on real feelings and real thoughts in the moment about what was happening in the group-as-a-whole. This stark and focused attention to task, role and boundary created a certain level of regression in the group and the here-and-now process was exposed. Patterns and dynamics that are hard to identify in everyday discourse became easier to see and my contribution to those dynamics, most often unintentional, easier to own, or let me say harder to disown. People started being more candid, also, like the consultants, speaking from their experience. The result was powerful and illuminating. I realized for the first time that I had very little conscious sense of my own authority and power, and how to use it in my professional and personal life. I also realized how unaware I was about how others influenced me and why I chose to follow or endorse some people and not others. It was the beginning of my lifelong interest in studying leadership, authority and system psychodynamics. 

Bryant: Why partner with Group Relations?

Hugh: A limitation of the standard conference format is that it tends to only engage the mind, the realm of ideas, while sidelining the emotions. Emotions are viewed as messy and inchoate - they cloud thinking and thus must be controlled. In contrast, a Group Relations conference emphasizes the emotional engagement that comes about through active participation in the events of the conference. The methodology offers a unique opportunity to study group and organizational processes through exploring the interpersonal, intergroup, and institutional relations that develop within the conference itself. The ‘here-and-now’ case-in-point conference format encourages participants’ raw emotions and ideas to surface, thus allowing participants to be available for observing and interpreting themselves and others, which in turn provides very powerful data for learning.

Bryant: How are you thinking about what are the unique characteristics of the holding environment for a productive conversation around these topics?

Dannie: I think I spoke a bit about the qualities of the holding environment in a Group Relations context. It is created by espoused and tacit agreements about the task, the role one has taken and the management aspects of the enterprise (the what, when, where, how). The participants in a conference of course are free to learn in any way that makes sense to them but the consultants agree to and hold clear limits around task and role behaviors. The process of authorization in role comes from not only the sponsoring body but from each other in informal ways, from above, from aside, and from below. This mutual authorization process is part of the holding environment. Those authorizations of people in their roles, their origin, their quality, their force, these are the aspects of leadership that can be experienced and learned about. 

And the group relations model role is a function of the organization’s task. Role is a framework in which the individual and the organization come together, and the network of those connections of person and role, make up an aspect of the holding environment. 

Bryant: Thank you both, for taking the time to answer these questions!

To hear more from Hugh or Dannie, and from all of our outstanding facilitators, register for the workshop and we’ll see you at Harvard Kennedy School on October 26-28, 2018!

Dannielle Kennedy, Ph.D., co-founder and principal of WorkLab, is a former President of the Board of Directors of the Boston Center of the A.K. Rice Institute and has directed many conferences on authority and leadership in the Tavistock tradition. As both an organizational consultant and licensed clinician, she works with people and organizations to develop a deep understanding of themselves and the contexts in which they want to have impact.  

The daughter of a union organizer and a mother born before women had the right to vote, Dannielle grew up acutely attuned to the conditions that create oppression and privilege.  She considers the current shifts in gender identity and roles perhaps the least understood and most personally and profoundly relevant dynamics defining individuals and groups today.  Dr. Kennedy holds a Ph.D. from Simmons School of Social Work and is currently a candidate for certification as a Psychoanalyst at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis.  

Hugh O’Doherty, Adjunct Lecturer, was raised in Northern Ireland.  He has taught leadership and conflict resolution at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, the University of Maryland, and the John F Kennedy School of Government. At the University of Maryland, he directed the Ireland-US Public Leadership Program for “emerging” leaders from all the political parties in Ireland. In Northern Ireland, he directed the Inter-Group Relations Project, an initiative bringing together political and community leaders in Ireland to establish protocols for political dialogue. Hugh has consulted extensively with a wide variety of clients including the Irish Civil Service, the American Leadership Forum, the Episcopalian Clergy Leadership Program, and the Mohawk Community Leadership Program in Canada. He has also consulted in Bosnia, Croatia, and Cyprus and has addressed the United Nations Global Forum on Re-Inventing Government. Hugh earned an M.Ed and Ed.D from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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