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Recommended reading for really getting the most out of this exercise is Hanna Arendt’s essays on definitions of Power, Strength, Force, Authority, and the huge differences between them. You’ll be surprised at just how different they are.

Building on the last exercise concerning conflicting/contradicting directives from management, and losing your “best and brightest,” I’d like to address a prime motivator behind much of this confusion: the pursuit of “power.”

This isn’t innately an evil pursuit. Depending on your understanding of power, it is both necessary and nourishing to everyone concerned.  This is where I’d like to make the distinction between real power and the great pretender: counterfeit power.

Counterfeit power looks like the archetype we’ve all come to know: one person making other people do things. As a manager/leader, this looks right, at first glance. The problem is the inevitable breakdown of this system, and the built-in Machiavellian behavior that follows.  Neither of these enable one’s business to flourish, while allowing the leader to breathe freely, and the work force to not feel trampled. Real power does! Counterfeit power (making people do what you say, etc.) is temporary and fleeting. Real power (enabling people to do what is needed, etc.) grows and blossoms organically over time.

Enabling others to do things, and evoking their best work gives you phenomenal power. This is one of those wacky paradoxes of life: the more you give, the more you have. Not to belie my 60’s roots too much, but it could be said that power and love are quite similar in that respect.  They share this incredible and rare paradox. Mathematically and realistically, the converse is just as true: the more you withhold, the less you have.

Let me give you a real-world example of how this plays out. One organization that I worked with some years ago was suffering every ailment a retail establishment could suffer. Sales volume was down, morale was horrendous, staff turnover was a runaway train, and quality was almost non-existent. Management had been unable to make their people do what they wanted them to do, no matter how many management training seminars or workshops they went to. They brought me in to ”fix the problem.”

By systematically training and giving the staff an understanding of the big picture and how they fit (or could potentially fit) in that picture, they understood why they needed to do what they needed to do. We could make an agreement with each other wherein they would do what was needed, and management would in turn provide the tools, training, and return commitment required. They understood how keeping the organization alive and healthy gave them the security of an ever-increasing paycheck, and the environment supported them attaining their highest potential. They accomplished the tasks at hand not because I forced them, but because it was obviously the best thing to do for the organization, and thus themselves. Mutual commitment and enlightened self-interest are bi-products of Real Power.

Real Power requires no use of force or show of strength, and doesn’t hide behind the duck-blind of authority. Counterfeit power requires all of the aforementioned, using up incredible energy, and only lasting until the inevitable coup. Puffing up, wearing gold braid, and intimidation are all doomed to fail.

You remember every teacher, supervisor, or friend who helped you to be the best you, with fondness and respect. If they asked something of you, chances are you would want to help. They’d never need to bully you.  Managers or bosses rarely think of themselves as schoolyard bullies, yet the dynamic they foster is just that. And the results are just as detrimental.

Action Steps:

1. The next time you come to a four-way stop sign, take the opportunity to make eye contact and smile to each of the other drivers before letting them go first. Have that tiny interaction with them. As you drive away, pay attention to how you feel: heart rate, breathing, are you smiling? (warning: this usually puts you as much as 45 seconds behind schedule). Do you feel the power?

2. Then at the next four-way stop sign, make sure you go first, no matter who you tick off. Then see how much power you feel like you have, and for how long. (Hey, you won, right?!)

3. Notice from the first experience/experiment, a tiny taste of how much better you feel, when you bestow “power” and thus become powerful.

4. Notice from the second experience/experiment, how hollow and empty your victory was.

Helping someone up will always give you far more power than shoving someone down. If we all learned this lesson early enough, our world would be a far more productive and compassionate place.

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