There’s something mysterious about power. It can be an intangible aura around a person that we’re barely aware of, or an enormous wave that lifts or flattens us. We might be impressed by it, afraid or suspicious of it, or wish we had more of it. But it’s not, after all, magic and we can learn to use it and work with it, for good or ill.
All our dealings, from international politics to our personal relationships, rely on the balance between actual or perceived power and our reaction to it. There’s the subtle power of persuasion, the devastation of overwhelming firepower, the creeping dread of quiet coercion, the security that comes of expertise, and more. I wonder – where in your life do you wield power and in what situations are you on the receiving end? Do you accept that power in yourself or another, or rebel against it? And does it oppress, reward or empower?
I can remember as a high-school student wondering why Mrs Green (not her real name) could shout and wave her arms about furiously yet have no control over her class while Mr Brown (also an alias) only needed to raise an eyebrow for 30 rowdy teenagers to fall quiet. We weren’t afraid of either teacher. But we could sense Mrs G’s insecurity and were mean enough to exploit it, while all we felt for Mr B was respect.
With hindsight, I’d say we “believed” in Mr B: he made us feel safe, and he had something we wanted. His cool calm filled the room and we were grateful for it. He was prepared, organized and on top of his subject. He was confident answering our questions and he wanted us to learn – for our sake, not his. He didn’t need our approval but he didn’t abuse his power either, so we did approve. We gave him the power we thought he deserved.
In contrast, poor Mrs G was desperate and we knew it. I’m ashamed to say I just sat and watched as Angela and Katie, the class bullies, turned their sights on the one adult in the room and duly took her apart psychologically. They’d heard from an older class about the time she’d run out of the room in tears and not been seen for several weeks. And so they aspired to equal or exceed this benchmark of humiliation.
The pair were teaching the rest of us a lesson, too. We were left in no doubt of their vicious power, and their willingness and apparent impunity to use it. It would have taken a child of extraordinary courage, emotional intelligence and charisma to take a stand and rally the crowd against them. There was also no other adult about to come to the rescue, as we’d tacitly agreed to keep the whole scenario a secret. So, in this case, we made ourselves powerless and became victims alongside Mrs G.
It was around the same time that we were being taught some of the cruder dynamics of power through the media. Three tons of gold bullion were stolen from the Brink’s-Mat warehouse in London, the International Whaling Commission declared whales too endangered to exploit commercially, and the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. were exchanging threats of nuclear strikes.
Surely there must be another way to gain and use power in the world – humanely, creatively, not destructively? I looked and listened out for other role models in my life and found them occasionally among managers and leaders with formal, legitimate power, but also in more unexpected places – the junior office administrator, the old lady at church, the lifelong friend. And then suddenly I found myself viewed as powerful – how could I, would I, handle that?!
I’ve found that French and Raven’s Five Forms of Power go a long way to explaining my everyday interactions and give me ideas for developing and managing them better. Take a look at the model for yourself and consider – will your power play today be an elegant dance or a brutal fight?
Share your comments, experiences and thoughts about power below.