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Power is About Making a Difference in the World


“We can change the world and make it a better place. It is in your hands to make a difference."

-- Nelson Mandela

Last week, we examined how we think about power—often in terms of coercion, might, and dominance. While false power may take these forms, true power is about influencing those around you for the betterment of humanity.

This may sound idealistic, but I hope you will stay with me and Dr. Keltner as we continue to explore the 20 Power Principles outlined in his book.

While Machiavelli's philosophy of power is still prominent in our cultural understanding, The Prince was written during extremely violent times.

Compared to today, murder was more common, rape was acceptable, torture was entertainment, and the people were largely powerless to hold others accountable for their actions due to a lack of education, no media outlets, no organized militia, and only a minority believing in anything resembling human rights.

Recent research indicates that Machiavelli's coercive, forceful, and dominant power dynamics are stronger indicators of a fall from power than a rise to power. Instead, "people have come to believe that power is best expressed in compassion and enhancing the well-being of others and that warmth and understanding are just as important to strong leadership as forceful, assertive, and bold behavior."

Let's explore the first four Power Principles!

Power Principle 1: Power is About Altering the States of Others

We alter the states of others through our own choices and actions. These states may be economic, political, mental, physical, relational, etc. "Defining power in this way better positions us to understand how power has many forms and how we influence others in multifaceted ways." Perhaps, you demonstrate your power by giving an employee a pay increase, talking to a community about a social injustice, raising awareness of a health need, or demonstrating a new way of doing things. "Power, understood as a way of altering the states of others, helps make sense of how influential art, music, satire, and the written word can be."

Power Principle 2: Power is Part of Every Relationship & Interaction

"Recognizing that all social relationships are imbued with power can provide us with insight into our personal lives." Whether it's a life partnership, a friendship, a parent/child relationship, an employer/employee relationship, or an interaction with the grocery cashier, etc., there are power dynamics at play. We can choose how we operate and influence within these relationships and interactions -- either to assert our dominance (often due to a feeling of losing power) or place the well-being of others first in our motivations.

"True leadership must be for the benefit of the followers, not to enrich the leader."

-- John C. Maxwell

Power Principle 3: Power is Found in Everyday Actions

"People gain power as the result of small, everyday behaviors: by speaking up first, offering a possible answer to a problem, being first to assert an opinion, freeing up everyone's thinking by throwing out a wild suggestion, question, or humorous observation that gets the creative juices flowing. Our power is found in simple acts that bind people together and yield the greatest benefits for the group." Because of this power isn't a stable state; instead, it is always shifting based on your actions, from context to context (i.e., you may experience power while at work, but go home and feel powerless based on your actions within those difference contexts).

Power Principle 4: Power Comes From Empowering Others in Social Networks

No human operates in a vacuum. "What appears to be an influential act of an individual typically will prove to be a collaboration of many minds, the action of a social network." As 20th-century German-American historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt once observed, "Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. When we say of somebody that he is 'in power,' we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name."

This week, reflect on your experience with power -- at home, at work, in your community.

  • How do you practice these principles in your life?

  • What actions can you take to increase your power?

  • What can you do to empower those without power?

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