The True Meaning Of Power

Power is a tool that carries no innate moral value. What matters is the reason behind using that tool.

At the breakfast table of our ski house overlooking a frozen lake in Connecticut, seven giddy kids told jokes over cereal. This was a historic morning--the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and President Obama’s inauguration--so my wife interrupted their chatter to mark the moment. “Hey kids, who can tell me who Martin Luther King Jr. was, and what did he do?”

School must have primed them, because the three first-graders responded in near unison, “He changed the rules.”

This response may not have seemed remarkable to the kids or even to my wife, but for me it was poetry, the perfect mind-spinning conclusion to a piece of work I’ve been concentrating on for the past two months. I’ve been working on a piece for you examining power--what it is, where it comes from, and how to exercise it. I’ve read four academic books on the topic, sorted through ancient texts like the “Tao of Power,” and studied biographies of men and women who have risen to great power. My plan is to compile my thoughts into a succinct workbook.

But I’ve struggled with how to kick off the workbook because I (like most people) hold negative associations with the term “power.” It is often equated with corruption, coercion, the forcing of your will on others. It is personified by mobsters and dictators and incompetent politicians.

Yet, what I have come to appreciate after studying what academics and practitioners say about power is that the act of building and exercising power is one of the most basic human instincts. At its fundamental level, power is simply the ability get our way inside a group.

My two-year-old son has been building power skills for two years now. When someone steals his favorite stuffed dinosaur, he draws on a rapidly growing repertoire of tactics to get it back: the cry, the scream, the tell-mommy-or-daddy and, sometimes, the hit-the-offender-on-the-head-with-a-wooden-block tactic. He is seeing patterns, learning what works and does not work.

While our adult challenges seem more consequential, they remain the same type of problem at the fundamental level--you desire an outcome and must influence a group of people to get that outcome. In other words, power is the ability to make things happen, to get your project accepted, your product sold, your promotion approved.

Power is a tool that carries no innate moral value. What matters is the reason behind using that tool. You can use it for simple tasks (to get back your stuffed dinosaur), selfish tasks (to get the promotion), or communal tasks (to lobby for a neighborhood park). Power becomes destructive when we seek it out for its own sake; when we view power not as a tool but as an end in itself, when we seek power just for power’s sake. That’s when we risk stepping over to the dark side. No doubt this may seem tempting; as Henry Kissinger said, “Power is the great aphrodisiac.”

The opposite, of course is dedicating power to causes that improve the world: Mohandas Gandhi convinced Great Britain to leave India, Nelson Mandela used power to end apartheid, and Martin Luther King Jr. was powerful enough to “change the rules” and end segregation. Therefore, power is freedom. The more power you have and the more skillfully you use it, the greater impact you can have.

So, in my next post, I will delve into the 14 specific sources of power and the 12 key tactics of applying power. But to lay the foundation this week, I suggest we start to shift away from the negative associations we may have and recognize that beyond power lies freedom.

Here is an exercise that worked for me: Think about what associations you currently have with power, what noble cause you could pursue if you had greater power (even if that means getting a better job or higher salary to provide for your family), and what new, positive, associations you could associate with power.

1. I associate the word “power” with the following (list any words, emotions, or opinions that come to mind):

2. Create a noble cause (if you had greater power, what positive impact would you want to have?):

3. New associations (what alternative, positive, associations can power have?):

[Image: Flickr user Mohammad Haleeque]

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