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The Pattern of Power


“Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts... perhaps the fear of a loss of power."

-- John Steinbeck

When you hear, or in this case read, the word "power," what comes to mind?

Often, when we think about power, we tend to think of it as an act of coercive force -- something that we struggle to gain and fear losing once we have it.

Research shows that "our culture's understanding of power has been profoundly and enduringly shaped by one person -- Niccolò Machiavelli -- and his powerful sixteenth-century book The Prince.

According to Machiavelli, power is what dictators and military generals wield to shape countries and politics; business leaders and coworkers get ahead in the rat race and climb the ladder of success; it's how that middle-school bully collects so much lunch money. Within this worldview, power is about being the biggest, meanest, most conniving person. Those who have it will do anything to keep it, and those without it will do anything to get it.

But this thinking prevents us from seeing the power dynamics woven through every interaction we have in everyday life.

Over the next few weeks, we will explore the research of UC Berkeley social psychologist Dr. Dacher Keltner as we grow through the chapters of his book, The Power Paradox. He explains that "the power paradox is this: we rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst." As such, how we handle the power paradox "determines our empathy, generosity, civility, innovation, intellectual rigor, and the collaborative strength of our communities and social networks. Its ripple effects shape the patterns that make up our families, neighborhoods, and workplaces, as well as the broader patterns of social organization that define societies and our current political struggles."

Redefining Power

If we want to handle the power paradox well, we must redefine power as "the capacity to make a difference in the world, in particular by stirring others in our social networks." Another way of thinking about this definition of power is your influence with those around you. Considering power in this way eliminates the limitations of being a dictator, military general, corporate kingpin, celebrity, or other traditionally "powerful" positions; instead, "power defines the waking life of every human being."

"If you want to test a [hu]man's character, give [them] power."

-- Abraham Lincoln

The Misnomer of the "Power Grab"

Thanks to Machiavelli, we often think power is something to be seized or grabbed out of the clutches of someone else, but Keltner's research reveals that power is given to us by those around us. "We gain power by acting in ways that improve the lives of other people in our social networks." Our power is directly tied to our reputations and what others think of us. Think about that for a moment. Someone in a position of what we would traditionally consider one of power can lose their influence or their capacity to make a difference because they tanked their reputation; they may still hold the position, but they no longer hold the people.

The Feeling of Power

While power is the capacity to influence others, there is also a feeling that goes along with it -- a thrill of expectancy, delight, confidence, authority, and importance. These feelings are never wrong in and of themselves, but we've all experienced how our feelings tend to take over our lives. Unfortunately, while they make great servants, they are terrible masters. "Every time we experience power -- a recurrent of feeling in our everyday interactions -- we find ourselves at a moment, a fork in the road, where we must confront perhaps the most important choice we will make in life, yet one we make on a daily basis. Propelled forward by the feeling of power, we can act in ways that lead us to enjoy enduring power, have lasting influence in the world, and continue to be esteemed by others, or we can be seduced by the self-indulgent possibilities that power occasions. Which path you take matters enormously." Any opportunity for power in our lives should lead us to practice empathy, generosity, gratitude, and storytelling for the benefit of others, but straying from the focus on others leads to selfish and shortsighted behavior. "This is the heart of the power paradox: the seductions of power induce us to lose the very skills that enable us to gain power in the first place. By succumbing to the power paradox, we undermine our own power and cause others, on whom our power so critically depends, to feel threatened and devalued."

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

  • Who holds the power in your relationships?

  • How does that make you feel?

  • How can you change your perception of power to handle the power paradox?

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