Thoughts On Power


It was Baron Dahlberg-Acton (English historian, politician, and writer) who first coined the phrase,Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  

I’ve been wondering about the nature of power lately.  No, I didn’t go back and re-read Machiavelli’s treatise on power, nor did I review Sun Tzu’s Art of War.  But I’ve been curious about what I’m observing in our country and around the world.  I’ve been more than disappointed (and at times appalled) at what I’ve observed by leaders in governments, corporations, businesses, universities, organizations, and communities. 

The Fourth Estate’s purpose as it has evolved over time, is to be the investigative watchdog, to inform the public of the abuse of power, malfeasance, corruption, scandals, failed policies (and more) of our public and private officials.  As such, much of our news is focused on what is wrong in the world and our neighborhoods.

One could assume that most people in power, whether in private enterprise, or public domain seem to have forgotten their humanity.  Yet, this is not new behavior.   As a student of history (yes, that was my undergraduate major), I recognize that there is an ebb and flow to power.  Despots are eventually toppled, dictators are overthrown, political parties sweep into power and are swept out again. 

Look at what I’ve written above.  The premise is that people in power, misuse that power.  Yes, that does happen, but we need to expand our view of power.  Most people ascribe to a definition of power that relates to wealth, status, position, and/or fame.

What if there was a different definition of power that we could explore?  Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist at Berkeley has been researching the concept of power for over twenty years.  His definition of power is a bit more interesting to me.  He defines power as “…the capacity to make a difference in the world.”

When I observe the abuse of power, I feel frustrated and helpless. I remind myself of my democratic freedom and responsibility, to voice my opinion and to vote, but that doesn’t change the sense of helplessness. However, when I think about Dr. Keltner’s definition of power, I recognize that I’m more powerful than I give myself credit.

If power is the ability to influence another person, we all have power and we are exercising it every day. We exercise our power when we treat someone with respect and unfortunately, when we don’t. Power is a part of our everyday actions and engagements from loved ones to strangers.

What if we focused our attention and intention on that broader definition of power, the ability to influence others, and decided each day to positively influence another person?

If I set an intention for today and everyday in the future that I will positively impact others, (through small acts or large) I can shift my frustration to a sense of empowerment.

I can make a difference even though I’m not rich; I don’t have thousands of followers on social media; I’m not famous; and I don’t hold public office. When I ask myself what’s one positive action I can take today to influence another, I see more opportunities.

I have a lot more to learn about the paradox of power. What about you?

See you next week.