“I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people” — Mohandas Gandhi
Welcome to my blog, A User’s Guide to Power. Why a user’s guide? My focus here is on learning how to use power well, and when, why and how it’s used poorly. It’s also part of a longer project of writing a book called A User’s Guide to PowerTM.
Why power? Why not call it leadership, influence, or persuasion, as do others when they talk about power? I want to use the word power just because it’s such a dirty word and thorny problem. I want to tackle the problems of power head-on. Friendlier words like influence, persuasion, or leadership make it more manageable, but unpacking those thorny problems of power may help us learn more about its uses and misuses.
This blog will be a more personal, at times psychological approach to the behaviors and skills underlying our use of power. It’s not going to focus on current politics, or even on specific public leaders, though it may occasionally. It’s not about critiquing or benchmarking leadership by example, because my goal is to view leadership and the use of power as an everyday behavior, something for us all to master. This blog is a small attempt to humanize and demystify leadership, to bring it down off the mountain and into the hands of the people. Hopefully, it will be a forum on the trials and tribulations, challenges and success of leaders and leadership. I hope that by investigating the behaviors, mindsets and challenges inherent in using power, we come to appreciate leadership as something we all do and must do.
That’s why I call it a user’s guide. Even though power is most associated with office, strength, rank, economics, or whatever, at its root, it’s still a set of behaviors. And therefore, using it well is learnable. It means learning and mastering the set of skills and behaviors that comprise it. Not dissimilar from learning to ride a bike. That may be an oversimplification, or naive, but everything I’ve seen so far in my work lead me to think this is worth a shot.
In the interest of full self disclosure (which is, supposedly, a good use of power), one of my ulterior motives is to talk about democracy. By viewing leadership and the use of power as something for us all to master, I am beating the drum for democracy. Personally, I am fascinated by the psychology of democracy – that means, how do people, not just countries, governments, and institutions, become democratic? What are the behaviors that we need to act democratically? And how do we learn them? Democracy, to date, has been more of a mechanism and less of a behavior. Because power is at the heart of democracy – demokratia, power of the people – talking about the behaviors underlying power also means talking about the behavior that makes us democratic – governing ourselves and others wisely.
Trying to tackle the problems of power and failure of democracy only in terms of systems, institutions, governments, etc., misses a key leverage point – people. Before power is a problem on the outside, it’s a profound personal problem for the individual. Our first experience of how we use power is personal and internal. Getting up in the morning, we push ourselves to leave the warm bed, to turn on the shower, answer difficult emails, make breakfast for the kids, go to a job we hate, endure routines we dislike. And we use power everyday to make choices, whether mundane choices between eggs or cereal, or life altering decisions between jobs, partners, or goals. Even if we don’t make choices, or refuse to decide, we’re using power to resist deciding.
This use of power is not always at our fingertips. It is often used against us. Inner criticism is a form of power. So are resistance and cynicism, procrastination, rebellion, and bad moods. We use power to pursue goals that aren’t good for us. We use power to convince ourselves that we don’t deserve to live with love in our lives. We use power when we talk ourselves into giving up, or push ourselves to stay with something harmful. Power is at play whenever we put ourselves down, or feel inferior.
While it is often easier to see power “out there,” in our bosses, parents, teachers, and in the institutions and bureaucracies that confound or oppress us, power begins within. How we use power on the outside is a reflection of how we use it on the inside. Whether we feel empowered or not, whether we can push back and influence the world around us in ways we want, depends on our intimate relationship to power.
My next series of posts concern the fog of war, the confusion, lack of awareness and obscured vision that awaits us when we step into a leadership role. I also look forward to being enriched by hearing from those of you in designated leadership positions, what is the human side of leading like? How is it to be in the crosshairs of public opinion? What has helped you most, been the biggest challenge? What have you learned from your failures? Thanks for joining me here.