Power erodes with assertion
Everyone wants power. Control of other people, of resources, of night and day. They now say that Canute wasn’t trying to stop the tide coming in, merely demonstrating to his citizens that he didn’t have the power to do so. Interesting that the story morphed into one of an apparent demonstration of power when, in the event, it was exactly the opposite. How often that is repeated in our day to day lives. How many times have we kicked the ball hard enough to get it into the net only to find that we have kicked it out? So, how do we see, handle and retain power?
Think of it like this. The steam in a steam engine is immensely powerful. To be useful it has to be applied to the right mechanism, with the right amount of pressure, at the right time. The power of steam is extremely dangerous unless handled carefully. It can be used for good or for bad. If you want an analogy nearer to the politics of the day turn to the – apparently very aptly named – White House. Here we have a man whose sole purpose in life, it appears, is to show off his power and to be admired for his charm and good looks. He never listens to himself, never looks objectively in the mirror. So much potential power for good being so profligately wasted.
In our own modest lives we look for power, too. The old saying that the woman decides the trivial things like where we will live, how many children we will have, what work the man will do, where we will go on holiday while the man decides the big things – whether the country will go to war and whether to build another aircraft carrier, is nearer the truth than some men would like. It is one of the reasons why, in the past, men resented women coming into the workplace. It was the only preserve of a man’s power.
The biggest misconception of power is that when you get to the top you have total control. Nothing is further from the truth. The power a Very Top Person has is usually quite limited by the politics of remaining there. We are all, to a greater or less extent, beholden to those who support us. Take the example of the Pope in the Catholic Church. In theory he has absolute, undisputed power. In practice he has a Curia – a body of congregations, tribunals, and offices through which he governs the church – which has the power of delay, almost the greatest power you can have.
The power you do have in the Top Job is to set the culture of an organisation. You do this by example, not by diktat. You may use incentives, rewards and punishments to encourage adoption of your culture but if the main influence is not your own example it won’t work. A lesson I was taught early in life about negotiating also works for power control. Negotiating is, after all, an assertion of power by both or all parties to a debate. ‘Negotiate toughly, settle liberally’ is almost the opposite of today’s practices which is why so many of them end up in court. As a way of exemplifying a culture, I can think of few better.
Power is an ingredient of life that should be used sparingly. The leader who has to demonstrate his power all the time is a weak leader. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a little, shrivelled Armenian nun. She had no backing from her convent or her church, both of whom thought she was too pushy. She built not only an order of nuns to help the poorest of the poor but a great culture of giving and loving. She did that by being tough but she always retained her generosity. To exercise power you want it to be known that you can be powerful but you don‘t want it to be seen too much.
The fact is that power erodes with its assertion. All parents know this. If you have too many rules you have to keep on asserting them and your children soon get to ignore you. Very few rules, strictly observed is a good modus operandi for both parents and bosses. The greatest power we have is our ability to make life agreeable or disagreeable for others. It is as much the little decisions that we make as the big issues that decide how this will work. Observing when others have problems and stopping your own agenda to help them tackle theirs is a wonderful demonstration of your power.
Insisting isn’t what makes us powerful.
Assisting is what gives us power.