I glanced at the message from Tom and saw that it was time sensitive. I was giving an update to my boss Brad and since he was standing over my shoulder, I did the courtesy of letting Tom know that Brad was with me. “Oh BTW, Brad’s with me.”
“Brad’s there? What’s he doing there?”
“He’s just getting my status.”
Now, this seems reasonable to me, bosses often want status updates, but an entire team freaked out. Messages and emails going everywhere. 5 people sending statuses to ME, of all people. You’d think the world was ending.
I’ve always been interested in power. Who has it, how they use it, and what it really is.
The Four Types of Power
There have been many theories put forth on power and the types of power, and of course I have my own. I think about power in terms of types of power and how they are combined along with a set of variables. Let’s get to it.
This is your own power, whether you know you have it or not. It’s how you put yourself out there in the world. It’s your integrity, honesty, sense of fairness and compassion, your ability to stand up for what’s right, among many other qualities. How much you put out there is equal to how much personal power you have. It’s your self-esteem, you sense of worth. The more you have; the less others can affect you.
Some people have so much personal power that they affect others around them. They inspire them, push them, encourage them to be better than what they are. They are the people others gather around because they trust them and believe in them. In business books they often call this informal power. In any organization, there’s always powerful people who have no authoritative power. The lowest ranked person may have more pull with the CEO than the VP.
Technical power is knowing how things work, how to do things, being able and competent in your role. The person who knows what they’re talking about is very powerful. They are the ones who are tapped to solve problems and handle situations.
Authoritative power is the power of position. You are the manager or the CEO, or Tech Support. This is an official set of responsibilities and privileges. This power demands it’s due. It’s a social convention that helps organizations stay organized.
The power of fear happens when someone holds something over you. Your job, your home, or even your life. They may threaten to oust you or expose you in some way.
In the Navy we learned to never do anything that you can’t admit to right away. If you do, you open yourself up to blackmail and blackmail is the use of the power of fear.
Variables of Power
Personal, Technical, Authoritative and Fear are the basic powers, but they can be either enhanced or distorted via different variables.
Conscious vs. Unconscious
Have you ever heard the saying “he doesn’t know his own strength”? People who don’t know their own power, people who are unconscious of their own power, often use it without understanding what they are doing. They take no responsibility for their own power.
People who are conscious of their own power know what they’re doing. They take responsibility, whether what they do is perceived as right or wrong.
Sometimes people know their own power. It’s right in their face. But deep down they just don’t believe it. They often look to the outside to validate themselves, sometimes searching for offenses and other reasons to explain why they don’t believe in their own power. This feeling of lack can never be satisfied because it comes from the outside.
Believing in your own power, or even just knowing that you should be believing in your own power, makes your power stable. People or circumstances can’t affect you emotionally as easily as it does the unbeliever. It comes from within.
There are people who are conscious of their power, they believe it, but have a hard time accepting it I don’t know why, maybe some energetic energy in the system that screams “this isn’t right!” Or maybe accepting it means giving something up.
I struggle with this one. I’m conscious of my own power, I believe I have it, but I find it hard to accept. Even though I’m a powerful person, deep down I think of myself as a work in progress. I have a lot of work to do, maybe a lifetime’s worth. I don’t want to be so powerful. If I’m that powerful, who are my role models? The more I learn the more I see that I may have to give up this need, and that hurts a lot. Life was so much easier when I thought everyone else was healthy, happy and sane.
Once your conscious of your power, you believe in your power, and you accept your power, it’s time for courage. Living in your power. Having the “Courage of your Convictions.” Even in the face of those who oppose you. It’s a risk. It’s the trait of the Leader. There are not many true leaders out there.
If you have the power, and people are lining up behind you, and you don’t have courage, then you may take those people down a bad path. At best you’ll look like a flake. At worst, you might end up with people drinking the koolaid.
Positive Variations of Power
There are a few variations that put all of this together into a relatively powerful person. I’m talking about people who are at least somewhat conscious, believing, accepting, and courageous.
The One You Tolerate
We’ve all had the boss that has no personal power and doesn’t really know what they’re doing. All they have is authoritative power. You need them to keep things moving but you pray they don’t get in your way. This is the person you tolerate. It’s not the best situation but it’s the most common. There are many managers out there who only have authoritative power. I call them “clipboard managers.”
At best, they do the minimum tasks you need done to do your job. At worst, you end up either protecting yourself against them or you need to manage them. That’s a waste of energy and time.
The One You Need
Even if a situation is terrible, if you have one person who has immense personal power, you have someone you can latch onto and who you can follow, if only informally.
Most have heard the tale of Viktor Emil Frankl from his book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” This was a man of great personal power who held people together in the worst of situations, the Nazi concentration camp. This was a man who knew his own power and had the courage to exercise it, even in the face of probable death. Now THAT is power.
The 3rd Most Powerful
Add Technical Power to Authoritative Power and you at least have a manager who understands the system, the problems and complexities. They are much more able to perform and ensure that you have what you need to move forward in your function.
The 2nd Most Powerful
Add Personal Power to Authoritative Power and you have the manager who’s on your side. They’ll go to bat for you. They know their people and who to tap for whatever they need.
If they have courage, they don’t need technical power because they are secure enough to delegate. They share victories. They inspire.
The Most Powerful
Personal + Technical + Authority in a person who is fully in their power is the most powerful person in the world.
They inspire loyalty and trust. People know they know what they’re talking about. They have everyone’s best interests at heart. They share power. They share risk. They are fierce. People follow them willingly, sometimes to their death. They are Maximus in Gladiator.
Oh! How I search for this person! I’m warrior caste at heart and I need a strong leader.
The closest I ever came to finding this was in Rufe, a consultant hired by Orrtax. Orrtax knew something was wrong and so hired him to figure it out. I spent a lot of time learning from him as he made his way through the company. At the end, he decided that what we needed was for him to take over. So he became the President. He was my hero. I lined up behind him and whatever he needed from me; I took care of. He was quite a leader.
Negative Variations of Power
Then you have the negative side of power. Misuse or misunderstanding of power. Or brain chemistry getting in the way.
The Most Powerful + Fear
Take someone with Personal + Technical + Authoritative Power and add in a bit of insecurity or a self-esteem issue, they may also wield the Power of Fear.
Fear, under these circumstances, is the most damaging because people don’t see a way out of it. They become helpless. How do you stand up to someone so powerful? Many people would never even try.
Think of Donald Trump. Now no matter what your opinion of him is, I think we can all agree that he’s pretty damn powerful. That power is a big reason he got elected, along with a bunch of Republicans hoping he would wipe out corruption. He is powerful. But he also wields the power of fear. As someone who lives in Seattle, I have seen what that fear and the feelings of helplessness can do to a population.
I don’t do well with this type of power. I tend to poke the bear.
One of the companies I worked for was sold to a Texas company and they sent up a team of 2 executives and 5 others to wrangle us. One of those executives was Brad. (Remember Brad from the beginning?).
Brad had it all. He was the single most powerful person I ever worked for. Smart, inspiring, challenging. He knew what he was doing. But he also used the power of fear. He focused mainly on the team that he brought with him, at least that’s the way it seemed to me. He’d set them up to fail. Give them challenges outside their skill set. Sneak up on them. After the team freaked out and sent me their statuses, I wandered into his office to get after him for using fear like that. He agreed that he should stop, but he didn’t.
It only occurred to me years later that he may have been trying to set me up as well. Like the “Karin, I want you to design a new customer service program using UML” directive. I’d never designed a system before, but I didn’t worry about it. I got a book on UML and designing systems, and designed the system. It didn’t even occur to me that he might have been targeting me. I still don’t know if he was.
Unacknowledged Personal Power
Here you have someone who has great Personal Power, but they’re unconscious of it, don’t believe it, and/or don’t accept it. It’s about them.
These people exhibit Personal Power and people line up behind them, but the dark secret is that they have a hidden agenda. Maybe they are trying to feel more powerful or increase self-esteem. They may be looking for evidence of their own power. It puts a spin on it that makes them in ineffective leader.
At worst, they may use the power to hurt others. To exclude them from community. To attack people who don’t agree with them.
Anyone who has issues with their own power can fall into a trap and spiral with them.
There is a lot of courageous choices being made in this time. Some of the most courageous as those choices around identity. Making the choice to change your sex to how you feel inside. Being non-binary. Or if you are like me, acknowledging a mixture of both male and female. Standing there, in your truth, is the most courageous thing you can do. And part of the reason for that is that many people will feel threatened by it, for many reasons. But the courageous stand anyway. Even in the face of things sometimes going sideways. That’s what courage is.
What I’ve noticed is the tendency to make these courageous people victims. These people are convinced, by others, that they are victims. They find others who have been convinced they are victims and so have evidence they should feel like victims. Now we have a victim culture. Then you add in others with their own personal power issues who decide they need to “defend” these victims. You end up with assholes and internet trolls. And it’s all bullshit.
They are THE FUTURE! They are leading the way! They are the risk-takers! Being courageous enough to stand in their truth, in the face of opposition, is inspiring! It gives others the courage and strength to do the same thing. It is the mark of a leader! It’s how you make people take you seriously. It’s POWER!
No one takes someone with a victim mentality seriously, except others like them. All they do is dilute the cause.
STOP THE NONSENSE! STEP INTO YOUR POWER! THE WORLD NEEDS YOU!
Unacknowledged Technical Power
This tends to affect businesses the most. You get the person who knows everything about everything. They are brilliant, and capable, and talented. But they have some self-esteem issue that makes them doubt themselves.
These people tend to hoard information. They’ll make you pay if you need anything. And if they’re a software developer, they’ll make their code so complicated that no one can understand it. In this way they make sure they are never fired. It’s really annoying.
Unacknowledged/Insecure Authoritative Power
The main job of a manager is to “get work done through people.” The problem happens when the manager doesn’t understand the implication of that directive. Managers are supposed to make sure everyone knows where we are going, what the priorities are, and that everyone is doing what they should. They also need get us what we need to do our jobs, and go to bat for us if anything, including upper management, threatens us.
Things go bad when you end up with a manager who is a flake. Who doesn’t stand up for you. Who can’t demand the resources you need. Who refuses to make decisions about priority and direction.
Sometimes they feel like they have no power to go higher. Sometimes they think their position is about them rather than the responsibilities. Some just don’t have enough personal power to make the hard decisions. This is your problematic manager.
A long time ago, one of my co-workers was promoted to manager. I liked him but he had odd ideas about his new position. He thought it was about him. That now he could direct others, tell them what to do, and they would do it. He didn’t understand the immense responsibility he had taken on.
One day he came into my office and sat down. He was obviously very uncomfortable. He told me that he’d been told that we needed to increase our hours by 10 hours a week and he wanted to know what my extra hours were going to be.
Now, anyone who works in a knowledge field knows that extra time doesn’t equal extra productivity. It actually results in more mistakes, more stress, less work done, and higher turnover. This attempt to increase our hours was a reactive decision not based in wisdom.
I looked at his bowed head. I told him that this wasn’t right. He said he knew. I told him that it was his job to tell them no. He said he knew. But he couldn’t do it. I told him that I wasn’t going to tell him my extra hours because I wasn’t going to comply.
So, we had to have a huge meeting with the goal of convincing me, Karin, that this was a good idea. I held fast and didn’t give an inch. They finally backed down and later actually admitted that it had been a bad idea in the first place. No duh. I was one of the lowest ranked people in that room and I was the one who had to stand up. And it could have gone south for me. It should have been the manager.
The Power of Fear
And finally, the Power of Fear. This is the willingness to use power to manipulate, terrorize, or even destroy others.
People who wield this power are the weakest of all of us. They are also the most dangerous because of that weakness. They are desperate. They will do anything to not feel that way.
When they use fear, they feel powerful, even if only for a moment. But it’s fleeting, and they have to find another fix.
At its best, you’re dealing with someone who just needs acknowledgement of their power since they don’t believe it themselves. The brownnosers feed them well. As long as they are fed, they are manageable.
At its worst, they also have a lot of the other powers. Then you get your Hitler’s. And your cults.
The Truth about Power
Something you should know…most people are not conscious of their own power. They may never be. Most people are easily manipulated by those who do wield power, for good or bad. It’s easy to condemn someone in hindsight. It’s harder to realize that they may have felt like they had no choice. We like to think that we are the captains of our own fate, but the truth is that there are many variables. You will never know your reaction to something until you have experienced it yourself. You can’t possibly know. And any statement to the contrary is rooted in ignorance, and fear.
There is a terror technique that is sometimes used on prisoners, especially those in prison camps with their families. They will bring in a prisoner. On one side is a group of other prisoners, on the other side is their child. They are told that they have a choice to make. They can either sentence the group of prisoners to death, or their own child, it’s their choice. If they refuse to choose, everyone dies.
Now, from a primal point of view, the choice is clear, you save your child.
From a logical point of view, the choice is also clear, you sacrifice your child. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.
But this a torture, so it’s not that simple. You see, the deaths are not the goal. If you are in a prison camp, your life is already forfeited. No, this is about the person who has to decide. And it has been set up to be a no-win situation.
If she chooses to save her child, she, and the child, have to live with the deaths of everyone in that group. And the entire camp will know it.
If she chooses to sacrifice her child, they kill her child, and then they kill all the people in the group anyway. Her sacrifice meant nothing. She has to live with that as well.
The goal of the torture was to destroy her mind. It’s a very effective torture.
The point is that none of us know what led to some of the decisions people have made. It is insane to think that any of us have the right to morally judge based on what we think we would do. Do people have to pay the consequences of their actions? Absolutely. But let them pay for the actions themselves, not based on moral outrage that may be misplaced.
Power is that powerful
My goal is to finally accept my own power, figure out what I need and find ways to provide it for myself. To try to not let my noodle tell me lies. To see through manipulation. To stand strong in my beliefs.
It’s going to be hard because I’m surrounded by victim-mentality. I’m going to try to not be so triggered by those who try to force responsibility for their own power onto me. That’s hard too. I have my own issues. I don’t want to be responsible for people pretending to be victims when they ought to be standing tall. It’s annoying, and useless.
I am powerful, and so are you. Live it.