When I use the word power, I’m referring to changing “what is” to “what can be.”
When I ask people to talk about power, they wrinkle their nose in disgust or say, “I’d rather not.” When I ask them why not, they offer up reasons why power is bad, saying things like:
Power makes people selfish and insensitive.
Power makes you over-confident, narcissistic, and corrupt.
Having people makes you intimidating.
People aren’t wrong when they say these things about power. Who hasn’t worked for bosses who were all these bad things—and more? If personal experience isn’t enough, research affirms that some people who have power are selfish, corrupt, and cruel.
As a result of these unsavory encounters, power becomes the bad guy to be avoided, like the creepy stranger who lures kids into cars with candy.
Power undirected by high purpose spells calamity; and high purpose by itself is utterly useless if the power to put it into effect is lacking. ~Theodore Roosevelt
Because so many people abuse power, we confuse power with the bad person misusing it and say we don’t want power.
When thoughts like this get into our heads, they can be hard to get rid of. However, for the greater good, now’s the time to let go of the notion that power is a bad thing and reclaim it as something good.
The problem? The bad person misusing their power
The problem with seeing power as an evil force to be avoided? This view removes the person who has the power from the equation. They become an innocent bystander to a situation of their own making. That’s not right.
Linguist Julia Penelope says the nouns we use and where we place them in a sentence changes how we, and others, interpret a topic. She says we sometimes go so far as even to forget that a person is responsible for what happened to us.
Julia uses the following series of sentences to illustrate this omission: John beat Mary. Mary was beaten by John. Mary was beaten. Mary was battered. Mary is a battered woman.
By the time we get to the third sentence, John has disappeared, and the topic has shifted from John beating Mary to Mary’s identity as a battered woman. When we make these thinking shifts, we delete whomever or whatever initiated the event.
We’re doing the same thing when we say power is bad. Power itself isn’t bad, it’s the greedy or egotistical person who’s changing “what is” to “what can be” to suit their own purposes who is.
What power does is that it liberates the true self to emerge. ~Joe Magee, a power researcher and professor of management at New York University
Professor of psychology and sociology G. William Domhoff notes that power is one of a few universal dimensions that humans encounter at the interpersonal, group, and societal levels.
Why is power’s universality important to recognize? Because doing good involves having and using power—but for the greater good, not personal gain.
It doesn’t matter if the doing good happens at work, at home, in the community, or in pursuit of social justice or equality. Changing “what is” to “what can be” requires power. If you’re like me and want society and workplaces to be more equitable, inclusive, and kind, we need power to effect those changes.
Eligibility checklist for power?
I confess. My tolerance for selfish, money-oriented, glory-grabbing people in positions of power has been exhausted. Because of that, I’ve been thinking about what can be done to ensure that the people who have power are the ones who can properly handle it.
Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power. -Seneca
Here’s what is on my list so far:
1) Change what’s measured and rewarded. Require that leaders at all levels be held accountable for people, principles, and profits. Measuring success only by dollars and cents perpetuates bad behaviors while encouraging more of them.
2) Call’em out. Rather than lauding their actions, criticize CEOs and Wall Street analysts who focus on only the bottom line. Who says capitalism must be heartless?
3) Take a leadership oath of office. Doctors do it. So do new citizens, politicians, soldiers enlisting for the U.S. Army, nurses, lawyers, and pharmacists. Part of the oath would be a promise to hold people, principles, and profits equally important.
To reclaim power and build inclusive workplaces where everyone feels welcome, there are three myths about power we need to put to rest.
3 myths about power to hack
Myth #1: Let go of the notion that you can be successful without using power.
Whether we realize it or not, everytime we take a job we’re given power. It’s called positional power, and we use it every day to make decisions, assign work, or coach an employee on how to do their job better.
“Power is required if one wants to get anything done in any large organization. Unfortunately, power doesn’t just fall into one’s lap: one will have to go after it and learn how to use it.” ~Jeffrey Pfeffer, business theorist and Stanford University professor
Some jobs do have more positional power than others, however, the power in all jobs—the capacity to transform “what is” to “what can be”—is available to us every day. Character-based leaders simply choose to use their power for the greater good, not personal gain.
Myth #2: Toss the notion that you don’t have any power because you aren’t the big boss.
If you have a job, you have power.
Companies expect employees to decide what work is done, make decisions, manage resources, and schedule work. Doing everyone of those things is a source of power. Every person, not just big shots, have job power. (Not something the bad boys and queen bees want us all to know.)
Plus, we all have personal power just waiting for us to put to good use. Position power is what we do; personal power is how we do it.
It’s a state of mind.
It’s you confidently believing in your strength and competence and helping others believe in theirs, too.
Personal power is you, says author and professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, aiding others “to mobilize resources, inspire creativity, and instill confidence among subordinates.”
Myth #3: Avoiding power because you’re afraid it will corrupt you is an excuse.
There are perks that come with powerful positions. People hang on your every word and want to please you. That can be heady, almost intoxicating stuff. However, the presence of perks doesn’t mean we have to let ourselves be corrupted. We don’t have to believe that we’re above the law or better than those in less powerful positions. We can continue to embrace our “ordinaryness.”
Fearfully shying away from any position or personal power leaves us powerless. Leaves us without the ability to shape outcomes or make a positive difference. It leaves the bad boys and queen bees deciding our fate.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Let’s take back power and use it wisely and well to create workplaces where everyone has a voice.