Readers of this column will have seen my previous articles in which I wrote about the leadership circles I facilitated with my colleague Frank Kretzschmar. The last was about sustainability, and the theme of our most recent was “How we deal with power: from victim to aggressor to victim”.
We’ve all heard that “information is power”, and while Frank and I were looking for other suitable quotes before our storytelling meeting, we came across some helpful provocations, including “Power is always dangerous. Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best,” by apocalyptic merchant Edward Abbe; and, equally pessimistic, William Gaddis shared that “power does not corrupt people, people corrupt power”.
More edifying, Lao Tzu told us that “Mastering others is strength. Self-control is real strength.” And Alice Walker reminded us that “the most common way people give up their power is to think they don’t have any.”
How power is wielded is central to whether things work or not, we informed our attendees by inviting them to the event. Power itself is neutral in terms of values. So when does it become good or bad? Where and how does abuse begin?
Who determines that power has actually been abused? How is it even possible for power to be abused? Does this happen when moral concepts are excluded from the exercise of power? When is corruption used to distort the rules of the game that were based on broad consensus? When powerful individuals lose all sense of self-awareness and proportion?
We find that too many neurotics and egocentrics are key players in the power game. And as a result, we forego essential matters out of comfort, unconsciousness, or anticipated obedience. They then take advantage of the resulting vacuum. Are we not guilty of this?
So how to tame the abuse of power? As leaders, you cannot do without power. How do you empower yourself and others? And how far can or should you go to (re)gain power and influence?
How do the exercise of power and ethical action coexist, since there are fewer and fewer fixed frames of reference? Exercising power without crossing individual boundaries is not possible. But is it possible to exercise power while remaining innocent? It is undoubtedly a question of balance.
We were interested in knowing where and how those who participated in our event managed to keep the power in the right area, and we certainly did. We learned the challenge of leading volunteers, in business and professional organizations, and in service clubs like Rotary and Lions.
And we talked about the need to “decolonize” and expand decision-making from the overly influential Global North to the Global South, including in how research funds are allocated.
We also heard stories of power abusers – from our own traffic police to Vladimir Putin – and of being the direct victims of more powerful and unconstrained actors.
One spoke of the fragility of power, as evidenced by the Arab Spring (and more recently in Sri Lanka, and with Johnson in the UK); while another worried about the constraints the UN Security Council faced in carrying out its mission of maintaining global unity.
I reflected on the fact that rather than wanting to feel powerful, my expectation was and remains that I can be influential, and especially by bringing people together – as a mediator, integrator, connector.
I enjoy helping others build their abilities so that I can empower them and therefore delegate to them. I see the goodness of power sharing, which requires openness and trust.
Here I am, deep in my senior years, a time in life when most of us no longer expect to wield direct power (except, perhaps, in the political arena). One of the ways I hope to have influence is through these columns.
A few weeks ago I posted by 400e, and this marks fifteen years since by first posting here. My feeling has always been that I am preaching largely to the already converted, but I hope my readers will emerge strengthened in their views, and thus promote them more boldly. I might even convert a few here and there, and who knows, maybe allow them to become more powerful.
In closing, I urge you to exercise your power by voting next month for men and women who will exercise power responsibly. Or else you will be their victims. But hey, I preach to the converted.
Mike Eldon is president of management consultancy The DEPOT, co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Leadership and a member of the advisory board of KEPSA