There’s little I can usefully add to the mountain of words written about Tony Benn. Alongside Michael Foot he was the most powerful orator I’ve ever seen. (It was a cold day in Liverpool, a march to the Pier Head then speeches by the Mersey. The Miners were on strike and Militant in the Town Hall. Hopeful days, odd as that may seem to some from here.) It’s been a bad month for aged heroes, what with Sir Tom Finney passing away as well last month. (I wrote about that on my poetry blog here.) Benn embodied many of the virtues as well as paradoxes of a certain kind of socialist.
Tony Benn quotes were in heavy rotation for a few days. These included his 5 ‘democratic questions’ to ask people in positions of power. They are good questions. But they are also questions I think should be adapted and adopted by leaders, including ‘cultural leaders’. Those who lead, manage or take decisions on behalf of others should ask them of ourselves as much as of other people. Actually, given that we all have some power in some situations, even if the ultimate ability to withdraw ourselves, or even ‘just’ in the home, we should all consider them. (I should be clear, I’m not using the word power here simply in its hierarchical sense, but in the broader sense of ‘ability to influence the behaviour of others’.)
I find myself in many different situations, with different types and degrees of ‘power’. The responsibilities of being Interim Director at mima for 6 months are different from facilitating a board away day, but both involve exerting influence. Chairing the Bridge North East advisory group or writing an evaluation report, that power varies. Sometimes I have more control and 'say' than others. Sometimes I feel more or less powerful. Sometimes I am given the ability to make decisions. Sometimes I take or assume it. Often, I give it away or share it.
Whatever the situation I’m going to make sure I regularly ask myself the following adaptation of Benn’s five questions. That way I can check I’m acting in the way I think best to build the kind of culture I believe in. After all, how can I hold others to account if I don’t hold myself to account first?
Here are my five questions then:
What power have I got?
Where did I get it from?
In whose interests do I exercise it?
To whom am I accountable?
And in what circumstances should I leave/stop doing what I’m doing?