Exploring the Idea of Power

In the spring of 2006, I was invited to give a talk as an introduction to The Power Game, a Leadership Vancouver one day role playing game in which participants explored how community leaders could influence the ideas and decisions of elected government leaders. To prepare for my talk I explored my ideas about power and how they related to leadership

We exercise power in our behavior, in what we say and do and how we say and do things. We have power in the context of the role we play and we have power as individuals. We exercise power over others, give power to others, or give our power to others.

We give people formal power to others in our social organization. Our social organization may have evolved from well-intentioned people, but much of the way we have organized ourselves and behave is used to advantage by self-interested people.

The power of force is the power of authority we give to positions or the power of authority is taken by force. This power is exercised by individuals. The use or the threat of the use of force is exercised by individuals.

The power of resources is the power of enterprises or individuals who hold or own resources. The promise or threat of withholding the use of those resources is exercised by individuals.

The power of the idea, the power of knowledge, and the power of our feelings, – what we really care about and how much we care, – is the source of real power. The use of this power is available to everyone and is exercised by individuals.

Our knowledge of power is the resource we have to counter the threat and the promise from those who hold the power of authority and resources. The question is how we care to exercise our power, how we are able to exercise our power, and how well we exercise our power.

Leadership is a quality that can be exercised. Successful leadership lies in our understanding of power, the sources of power, how we exercise it, how we give it, how we respond to the power by others, and whether our exercise of power is rooted in self interest, or with an interest in social responsibility and social contribution.

The success of enterprise, the success of leadership, and the successful pursuit of interests lies in the power of communication. We communicate with what we say and do and how we say and do things. These are choices we make. Leadership is about the choices we make and how well we perform.

We have a responsibility when we communicate. We have an opportunity to exercise and give power when we communicate.

Conversation is how we explore, learn about and contribute to the interests of others, and how we change the way we see and do things in our common interests.

We each come from a unique cultural context. Our culture is something we have learned, accept, and become comfortable with. We are more likely to behave and respond to our experience with an acculturated point of view and we could find ourselves responding the same way in different contexts.

Integrity, humanity, and creative contribution, qualities we admire that engender trust, appreciation, and respect are the qualities of good leadership and the sources of real power.

Our future lies in the pursuit of ideas that work. Ideas that work are more powerful than the threat or promise of force or material reward, or of ideas that provoke fear or need for compliance like many religious and political belief systems.

We can’t own an idea. We live our ideas every day. An art is a way of doing things. Leadership is an art. We cannot own these ideas. We can give them away and show how they work.

To create a civil society, a society that cares to create a community that contributes to everyone’s interests, we need to give ideas that work in our common interests to others. We need to give others what we know and what works, the art of leadership. We need to do this in what we say and do and how we say and do things.

When we contribute what we know to others, we give others power. This power engenders trust, appreciation and respect. These are the qualities that contribute to creating good relationships and successful enterprise. Giving this power to others contributes to our personal and common interests.

We exercise leadership by what we say and do and how we say and do things. We exercise power by what we say and do and how we do things. We give power to others by what we say and do and how we do things.

It is like acting. If we know the part we are playing and what our interests are, and we understand the circumstances we are given, it is simply a matter of how we choose to play our part and how well we perform. The story is created by the choices we make and how well we perform. Our performance lies in how well we send our ideas to those playing other parts, how much we demonstrate we care, and how well we connect with the other players and our audience.

This is the power of the leader. The audience comes to know by what is said, by how things are said, and by the body language, – the actions. Like the actor we need to prepare. The part we play isn’t about us. It is about the responsibility we take on for the interests of others, about the ideas we send, and about how honestly and how well we perform. There are two audiences. The other actors in the story and the power of position, ownership and admiration they hold, and the public, those whose interests are affected by the outcome, the choices, and the decisions that are made. In our world, the media, the reviewers, the critics, the editors of the content, those who draw the conclusions, shine the light on opportunities and choices, on information and ideas, on considerations, and who draw conclusions in the opinions they express and the information and ideas they choose to communicate are the most powerful force in our lives.

A leader is the creator of the idea, often the overlooked alternative, that contributes positively to all the interests involved and all the interests affected by the choice of what to do and how to do things. A leader is a performer in how well ideas and choices are expressed and sent to others.

In many instances, as in this one, even the two alternatives in play aren’t clear, let alone the possibility of a third. And clarity and consideration of the choices in the context of the circumstances and the interests involved is necessary to make a considered choice or find the third alternative that does no harm, or minimizes the amount of harm, and contributes most positively to all of the interests involve or affected.

As community leaders in the responsibility we take on or accept in the role we play, our first consideration is the common interests of the community and the personal interests of those involved, including our own, and this becomes the context for our exploration, our consideration, and our choice of the ideas we pursue and send to others.

Our power lies in communication and in creating conversation. It lies in what we say and do and how we say and do things. It lies in learning more about the interests, context, and behavior others through conversation, and in giving others the opportunity to explore their interests, context, and choices.

The power of our performance lies in the integrity of our performance. This is an integrity that allows us to change our point of view and our position as new information, ideas and opportunities present themselves. The power of our performance lies in our ability to demonstrate we care about the interests involved and affected, to be connected to the interests of others, understand them, and accept them as context. The power of our performance lies in the creative contributions we make in finding choices that work in our common interests, work in the interests of those affected, and work in the interests of those involved.

Leadership is not about credit or recognition. This is not why we do things. We do things because we care. We do things because we want things to work better. We look for things that work. That means that others must become, behave like, and demonstrate leadership, and be trusted, appreciated, and respected as leaders.

The power of honesty, of integrity, – the power of caring, of passion, – and the power of creative contribution and performance are the powers of leadership.

The power of force, the power of position and authority given, assumed or taken, the power of ownership of resources, of being able to deny or provide reward for behavior, the power of celebrity, the power of those who become well-known through the media or marketing, are the powers that create our context. These powers could be the powers of contributors if they choose to exercise leadership and responsibility in the interests of others.

Power is how we change behavior. Behavior that works better for everyone is the only way we will grow a civil society and create a sustainable life now and in the future.

Leadership is about integrity, caring and contribution, not about position. Leadership is about performance, about doing. It is the only way we make a contribution. Leadership is about demonstrating. It is about what we say and do and how we say and do things.

Power and leadership