3 Ways to Make Power a Good Thing

I like to ask workshop participants where they got their power. Some say from their jobs; others say from within themselves. Most people, however, say they don’t have any power, nor do they want any. Their point of view is understandable.

Too often, we see those in high ranking positions use their power to control or for personal gain. Their actions turn us off, so we turn away from wanting to have power, seeing it as something negative or that corrupts.

However, many of us want to change how leadership is practiced. We want more character, more diversity, more compassion, more inclusion, more humility, and more engagement. We want less ego, less sacrificing principles in pursuit of profits, and less bureaucracy.

Making all these “mores” and “lesses” a reality requires using power.

Power is viewed primarily as control, and given our experience and social conditioning, that’s our orientation to what it is and how it works. People assess, not kindness or respect, but influence and visual attention to identify powerful, dominant leaders. To drive the changes in leadership that we want to see happen, it’s necessary to shake off the perception that power is only about control.

Power, when we take it and make it something positive, becomes an every person’s capacity to transform “what is” to “what can be.” Power as control is disparity; power as capacity says that what’s good for one is good for all. Power as control is about “me”; power as capacity is about “us.”

To rehabilitate power’s reputation from “me and control” to “us and inclusion,” there’s many things leaders can do. Here are three of them.

3 ways to make power a good thing

1) Let go of the notion that power is always control and something bad.

The most common way people see power practiced is through top-down driven command-and-control that’s enforced through punishment, reward, compliance, and conformity. The key to good management and leadership is finding the Goldilocks' “just right” power balance between order and freedom, between control and capacity, and between selfish and selfless.

“You have to make sure you never confuse the hierarchy that you need for managing complexity with the respect that people deserve.” ~Mark Templeton, former CEO Citrix

2) Strike a balance between leading through the power of fear and the power of love.

Some measure of control is always going to be necessary to stave off chaos. There will always be rules to follow and protocols to adhere to; but through tough empathy, people can be held accountable without creating an atmosphere of fear. Effective leaders who understand power as capacity show people kindness, appreciation, and give them room to learn, fail, and grow. Leaders of character and inclusion appeal to people’s better angels, not the ones of darkness.

3) Embrace the art and science of contradictions in using power.

If asked to pick just one, would you pick inhaling over exhaling? Night over day? Sleeping or waking?

This isn’t a trick question.

These are all paradoxical pairs that by their nature are contradictory, and that we accept without question. To get right with power and lead through capacity as well as control, we have to learn to accept the tension that comes with managing contradictions that are both necessary for success and survival over the long term. Positive, powerful leaders use their heads and hearts to deliver both results and relationships, external competition and internal collaboration, confidence and doubt, change and continuity, purpose and possessions, quality and quantity, risk-taking and protection, and on and on.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” ~F. Scott Fitzgerald, author

None of these three things are easy to do. However, doing all of them (and many more) is what’s needed if those interested in bringing more character and compassion into leadership practices are to succeed. Ready to get started?