Last week I published a video on The New Rules of Power, and spoke about what a concept of “power intelligence” would look like. For those interested, here is a more in-depth exploration of the topic.
This May I will be in Prague participating in a conference, Building Authentic Organizations. I’ll be talking about Power Intelligence, and following the conference, offering a workshop on the same topic, Core Competencies of Power. Fitting, to be speaking in spring about power at the site of the Prague Spring, the famous reform movement of 1968.
With this history as a backdrop, I’m thinking about my talk not only in the context of the historical struggle for democracy—but also the contemporary one. Depending on your perspective, we’re either witnessing a world struggling for freedom, or against it. Is it another democratic revolution? While the first revolution focused on constraining power through a centralized, legal-rational system of governance, this one seems more about the decentralization and dispersal of power.
Moises Naim’s fascinating book, The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be, argues that we are indeed in another revolution about power. In his view, power is shifting downwards: it’s more dispersed, distributed, and available than ever before.
The new model of power poses a challenge: not just to governments or tyrants, but also to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few. We witnessed this in the recent election of the Syriza party in Greece, as well as the Arab Spring and global Occupy movements. Power is shifting from state actors to non-state actors everywhere, whether it’s the Islamic State or the Tea Party in the United States that shut down the US government in 2013. Its concentration of power in a formal authority is under assault.
We see it everywhere. In business, more nimble and de-centralized organizations are supplanting the traditional pyramid-shaped, multi-layered management system. Power has shifted from the producer to the consumer, the latter of which has in many cases gained stakeholder status; you can challenge company policy through a Twitter campaign or Facebook post. In the media, the establishment outlets and networks have lost ground to everyday content producers using blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Even in education: MOOCs, or massive open online courses, from MIT to Stanford to startups like Kahn Academy are putting information directly into the hands of the learner.
But will power be used any better in the hands of the many than in the hands of the few?
The fact is, “people power” does not automatically mean a better, more humane use of power. It can be; no doubt, power in the hands of the people can overturn a dictator, as we’ve seen. But it can also—as we have also seen, again and again—overturn the rights of a minority group. A company run by flat teams can encourage more creative employees, but can also give rise to convoluted office politics, bullying, and a culture of preferentialism.
If we have access to more power, then we also have the responsibility to use it with greater intelligence, effect, and humanity. And thus I think there’s a need for something like Power Intelligence: a basic competency for using power well. Just as we’ve developed Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence, we need to start thinking about Power Intelligence.
While it is often easier to see power “out there”—in bosses, parents, teachers, and the institutions and bureaucracies that confound us—power begins, first and foremost, within. How we use power on the outside is a reflection of how we use it on the inside. How empowered we feel, as well as our sense of influence over the world, depends on our intimate relationship with power.
Power Intelligence is about the behavior and psychology underlying our use of power. Yes, power is often associated with politics and social facts such as position, authority, wealth, office, strength, status and economics. But at its root, power is a set of behaviors. And we can learn to use it well. Power intelligence means knowing how to use power effectively and mastering the set of skills and behaviors that comprise it. This kind of intelligence would rest on these intersecting “rules” or principles of power—principles that are often overlooked when we view power as just a political or positional status, but not as a behavior.
Here are what I see as the 5 essential “rules” of Power Intelligence:
- Power is a feeling, not just a fact. Though we think about power as a thing we possess, have claimed, have been granted, or have been assigned, how powerful we actually feel determines how we use it. Power is a behavior, and behavior is driven by emotions— often unconscious ones. Our emotional state is more predictive of our behavior than our status or position. No matter what our rank, how we feel determines how we use our power. Which brings me to my next point:
- Context trumps rank. Though we are all mesmerized by positional power and social status, it is in fact our social power (whether it comes from organizational structure or cultural norms) that changes its effectiveness as we change contexts. The reason? Context defines power. Whatever a group or culture or organization prizes becomes its currency. And whoever has the most of that currency, whoever can approximate those values best, has the most power. This is largely outside of our control. Have you ever noticed that as you shift contexts, your sense of power or status drops or rises? In some groups, our skills or style gives us “cred”; in others, zilch. Even if we have a big title on our door—like Rodney Dangerfield—we don’t get no respect.
- Social power, whether status or position, is fragile. It depends on context, and thus makes us dependent on things outside of ourselves. Just like energy, in which there are internal (domestic) and external (foreign) sources of energy, external sources of power create entanglements and dependencies on others. When our sense of power needs to be ratified by others’ behavior, judgment, or perception—when we need others to behave in such a way as verify our sense of rank—we have become entangled in things outside our control. Our emotional state, along our sense of self-worth and empowerment, rests on others. So we become enmeshed and dependent on others, leading to manipulative, coercive or even domineering behavior.
- Low rank lures us. No matter how high our positional power or social status, the threat of low status or low rank is not just ever-present, but compelling. Low rank is limbic—it poses a threat to our existence and thus has powerful emotional charge. This makes for very complicated dynamics: if we are in a leadership position, and we get triggered or threatened by something challenging our rank— a challenge, criticism or attack, for instance—the “amygdala hijack” is almost instantaneous. We instinctively want to react from a one-down position as we’re overtaken by the threat of low rank. We react defensively, unaware or momentarily blinded to our high ranking role. What we feel and how we behave, and the role we play and how we are perceived in that moment becomes perilously unaligned.
- These 4 points takes us to the final rule: personal power is critical to using power well. Because we cannot depend on other’s behavior or our context, we can only enforce our power through our own personal power. In other words, our positional power is legitimized through our personal power. Personal power comes from our own inner feelings of self-regard. It is based in personality, life experience, and personal development. And because it doesn’t depend on anything external to itself for its value, it is much more robust. It can never be taken from us. We can only lose it through our actions.
Personal power protects us from the entangling dependencies on context. The more powerful you feel internally, the less you rely on your positional power to feel powerful. It can also protect us from the limbic threat of low rank. Personal power can be taken from one context to another, and enables us to thrive and prosper across all contexts, to adapt to constantly changing environments, and offers us the opportunity to use our gifts to the benefit of the world around us.
All of this leads to the question, how is personal power developed? Can it be learned like a skill, or is it something we develop, through life’s trials?
I’ll be exploring this in the next couple of weeks here – stay tuned!