Taming the abuse of power
Readers of this column will have seen previous articles of mine in which I have written about Leaders Circles I have facilitated with my colleague Frank Kretzschmar. The last one was about sustainability, and the theme of our most recent one was “How we deal with power: from victim to perpetrator to victim”.
We’ve all heard that “information is power”, and as Frank and I looked up other suitable quotes before our story-telling gathering we came across some useful provocations, including “Power is always dangerous. Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best,” from doomsday merchant Edward Abbe; and, also pessimistically, William Gaddis shared that “Power doesn’t corrupt people, people corrupt power.”
More upliftingly, Lao Tzu told us that “Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.” And Alice Walker reminded us that “the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
How power is wielded lies at the centre of whether things work or don’t work, we briefed our participants as we invited them to the event. Power itself is values-neutral. So at what point does it become good or bad? Where and how does abuse begin?
Who determines that power was indeed abused? How is it even possible that power does get abused? Does it happen when moral concepts are excluded from the exercising of power? When corruption is used to distort rules of the game that had been based on a broad consensus? When individual powerful people lose all sense of self-awareness and proportion?
We are seeing that too many neurotics and egocentrics are key players in the power game. And as a result, we give up on essential issues out of comfort, thoughtlessness or anticipatory obedience. They then take advantage of the resulting vacuum. Are we not to blame for this?
So how do you tame the abuse of power? As leaders, you cannot do without power. How do you empower yourself and others? And how far may or must you go in order to gain (back) power and influence?
How do the exercise of power and ethical action coexist, for there are fewer and fewer fixed reference systems? Exercising power without stepping over the boundaries of individuals is not possible. But is it possible to exercise power while remaining innocent? It is undoubtedly a question of balance.
We were interested to hear where and how those who participated in our event have succeeded in keeping power in the good area, and this we certainly did. We learned about the challenge of leading volunteers, in business and professional organisations, and in service clubs like Rotary and Lions.
And we talked about the need to “decolonise” and spread decision-making from the over-influential Global North towards the Global South, including in how research funds are allocated.
We also heard stories of power abusers – from our own traffic police to Vladimir Putin – and of being the direct victims of more powerful and unconstrained players.
One spoke about the fragility of power, as evidenced in the Arab Spring (and more recently in Sri Lanka, and with Johnson in the UK); while another worried about the constraints faced by the UN Security Council in fulfilling its mission of holding the world together.
I reflected that rather than wanting to feel powerful, my expectation was and is that I can be of influence, and above all in bringing people together – as a mediator, an integrator, a connector.
I enjoy helping others to building their capacity so I can empower them, and hence delegate to them. I see the goodness of power-sharing, which requires openness and trust.
Here I am, deep into my third age, a time of life when most of us no longer expect to wield direct power (except, perhaps, in the political arena). One way in which I hope I am being of influence is through these columns.
A few weeks ago I published by 400th one, and this one marks fifteen years since by first contribution here. My sense has always been that I largely preach to the already converted, but my hope is that my readers will emerge reinforced in their views, and so promote them more boldly. I might even convert a few here and there, and who knows, perhaps enable them to become more powerful.
In closing, I urge you to exercise your power by voting next month for men and women who will wield power responsibly. Or else you will be their victims. But hey, I’m preaching to the converted.