An Ethnic Minority Perspective: “The Power of the Other” (Book Review)

 In Pei Blog

Great leaders are in touch with their needs and can ask for help.  But for many ethnic minorities, our walls are high… because our pain runs deep. 

Last week, leadership author and psychologist Dr. Henry Cloud released his new book, The Power of the Other.  The central idea is that leadership is not just about individual performance, but about knowing how to cultivate the right kind of relationships with the people in our lives.  The book discusses the positive and negative impact people can have on us, and that we can have on others.  It contains a lot of examples and stories from science, business, and even Dr. Cloud’s own family.  I think it’s a worthwhile read!

Out of all the stories in the book, the one that stood out to me the most was that of a renowned heart surgeon named Liam.  At the peak of his influence, Liam was caught by his own family in an act of infidelity, and he was exposed for the double life he had been leading.  When talking to Dr. Cloud, Liam tried to come up with a plan to fix his marriage and career, but Dr. Cloud told him it was destined for failure because it all depended on his performance and output.

Dr. Cloud writes about how Liam spent fourteen hours a day working and giving to other people, from his work as a heart surgeon to his time at home with his family.  Yet he had not cultivated the ability to be truly vulnerable about his own needs, and to receive love when he was weak, discouraged and needing help from others.  Since his wife and family were not places where he chose to make his own needs known, Liam went looking for gratification outside of marriage — which led to his affair.

Dr. Cloud asked Liam, “Do you remember ever needing and depending on others?”

In a moment of clarity, Liam thought back to when he was a teenager.  His father was in treatment for alcoholism, and his mother was in a hospital for a nervous breakdown.  It was then that Liam decided that he was alone, and it was all up to him to take care of his siblings and family.  And that mentality had guided his life since then, from his long hours of work to the way he took care of everybody in his family.

Liam’s childhood story stuck with me, because he was a survivor, and that’s the background for so many ethnic minority families and leaders — whether we realize it or not.  Many of the older generation of parents and grandparents who immigrated to the United States are so strong-willed and hard-working, because that was their way of surviving the challenges of “making it” in a new country.

Take, for example, my grandmother (or as I called her, Por Por) When she was just a teenager living in Hong Kong, she had to disguise herself as a boy to protect herself from Japanese soldiers.  She fled to China, and then had to travel again to Vietnam under pressure from the changing political regimes.  When the war started in Vietnam, she did everything she could to send her children (including my mother) to the United States.  A bomb even landed in her backyard, but it fortunately did not detonate.  She was a survivor.


My grandmother (third from right) was a pioneer woman in a world of men.

My grandmother was also an independent woman with a will of steel.  She was a pioneer; for women of her generation, few had the level of education she attained.  It’s taken me years to fully appreciate all she accomplished, and how hard it must have been.  And… she was stubborn!  Once my grandmother was fixed on an idea or approach, there was little to do to persuade or change her mind.  Imagine the battle she put up when old age finally forced her to give up her house and independent lifestyle!

At times, I struggled with my grandmother’s stubbornness.  Like Liam, she spent all her time working and serving her family, but never shared about her own needs… and she would put up a fight when we tried to help her.  I admired her strength, and will forever be grateful for her sacrifice and love for me and our family.  But beyond that, maybe I just wanted to connect with her, and to know her in a more human way.  Like many parents and grandparents, though, she simply didn’t share stories of her life and past.  So how could I truly get to know her?  It’s almost like I was looking for the window into her heart and soul… but I often felt like I was on the outside looking in.

Of course my grandmother and other relatives had their reasons, which they would tell me:  “We don’t want to be a burden.  There’s nothing we can do about the past anyway, so why talk about it?”  But maybe there was another reason — the pain was simply too great, and my grandmother found it easier to not think or talk about it.

I understand this on a very small scale.  There are things in my past that are painful, and it feels like a risk to share about them with other people… even people in my life with whom I’m close.  But for my grandparents and parents, they experienced things on a level I may never fully comprehend.  The challenges of immigration, and adjusting to a new culture and language.  The realities of marginalization and even discrimination.  I have relatives who were prevented from buying a house for years due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882Those were very real barriers, on a much bigger scale than what I face today.

When I read Dr. Cloud’s The Power of the Other, I want so badly for myself and everybody to realize we have needs and to not be afraid to be vulnerable, and to ask for help.  I know those things are the key to intimacy in relationships and fruitfulness in life.  But like Liam, many people have backgrounds and influences that don’t make it so easy to do these things.  And usually, these are stories of pain… sometimes pain that’s more immense than we can know or imagine.  For ethnic minorities, it may be more than individual pain, but a collective pain that’s remembered and carried across generations.

What I’m learning is that to truly grow as leaders, we can’t just expect people to “get it.”  Learning takes time.  Learning requires understanding.  And understanding starts with the willingness to listen to our stories. 

I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with my grandmother.  But now I understand her better.  If we truly want to see leaders move past areas of great struggle, we must understand the roots of their pain and past.  That may be the first step to healing, and opening the doors of dialogue and relationship so we can truly unleash the “Power of the Other.”

Thank you, Por Por for your perseverance and sacrifice.  I wish I could have told you that earlier, but I didn’t yet understand.

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