Read time: 10 minutes
There’s a kind of power that is currently surging around the world. Unlike the idea of power as domination that we are used to, this power stems from connection.
For as long as we can remember, we have maintained the idea that power is earned through coercion, manipulation, and force. From Machiavelli’s The Prince to Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, the idea of power has become synonymous to controlling and ruling, but involves being sneaky like General M Bison striving to rule the world.
However, it’s much more complicated than that. That’s a myth that has already been debunked. You don’t have to be evil to get power, but something bad happens when you do get it.
Power is said to have a paradox: the positive traits that are exercised to accumulate power vanishes once it is obtained.
Pyschologist Dacher Keltner writes about this paradox in detail in his book The Power Paradox. His findings show the good news that nice people are likelier to rise to power, which means you don’t have to be a dick to obtain power.
His findings go hand in hand with anthropologist Christopher Boehm’s research on “chimpanzee politics” and primatologist Frans de Waal’s studies, which essentially show that social power is not based on sheer strength and coercion but through the ability to advance the good of members. They also found out that those who try to wield power over others by domination (especially by those that are considered alphas) are eventually deposed.
The bad news, though, is that even the nicest or most virtuous people turn into total beasts once they obtain it. Once success or authority is obtained, it triggers self-absorption—thus, the power paradox.
You see noble executives resigning or getting fired due to ethical violations, esteemed government officials committing significant missteps, famous and beloved athletes facing criminal charges, and so on. And this is backed up by various researches showing that among organizations, it is usually those with the most power or authority that display inappropriate or unethical behaviors.
There are many theories as to why the paradox occurs. Psychologists argue that authority makes you less sympathetic to others and it makes you impulsive and reckless. Keltner’s research shows that those with a lot of power display behaviors resembling patients with damaged orbito-frontal lobes, which are crucial for empathy and decision-making. They have brain activity maps similar to that of psychopaths or narcissists. Additionally, power has been shown in several studies to make leaders more judgmental or stereotypical.
My personal take on this is that it’s also because much of our institutional and cultural conditioning is removed from any sense of developing emotional and social maturity which are critical to lead, make informed decisions, and practice accountability. Competence is just one piece of the puzzle. Many of our means of formation still haven’t figured out how to prepare us to wield power. In the world of men alone, showing emotions or vulnerability—which are critical for social maturity—is considered a show of weakness. And much of our learning and conditioning has been focused on logical linear reasoning at the expense of empathy.
It’s mostly memorize, memorize, and memorize. At times, it gets quite mechanical. Work, work, work. Logic here, there, and everywhere, but we’re still not getting it. Empathy has only been around for about a century, but it’s something we’re only starting to get a good grasp of with the many developments we have in neuroscience, behavioral, and other brain studies.
We tend to lose that empathic side of ourselves once we gain power. Often, we then have none, especially if we have very little of it to begin with.
Power involves social dynamics. If the kind of power being used does not take into account our interactions with others, it’s bound to fail, as demonstrated in social sciences. Interaction is inevitable, and accountability measures are needed in any working system.
As neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga similarly pointed out, if you are the only being in the world, you have no one else to be accountable to. However, you’re not. You have to be responsible with your interaction with others. Any system requires accountability, especially if it means to improve. Corrections are needed. Thus, personal responsibility is necessary. And that is exactly the dilemma of power; it makes you lax because it removes any sense of responsibility and accountability, which is crucial in social systems.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Power somehow reveals your true colors or who you really are underneath. Many of the administrative tasks we experience in institutions do not necessarily enable us to use much of our brains, and this process compromises other kinds of intelligence, such as emotional intelligence. Perhaps rappers are right that when it comes to learning the game of life, you have to learn it from the streets, yo. Experience is needed to go hand in hand with knowledge. Like going for a kiss or entering a relationship, you won’t really know what it is until you try it and get hurt, and it’s not something you’ll fully grasp from a book or a school or a company’s directives.
This is why power is said to be best bestowed upon someone who’s enlightened or pure of heart, as portrayed in much of our literature (i.e. the Excalibur sword of King Arthur). Someone who’s well rounded enough but is not bound by ego. Someone whose sense of superiority is not based on bringing down others but bringing others up without feeling threatened, lesser, or inferior. Someone who lets things be and chooses not to control based on fear. The kind of power I mentioned that is surging around the world is based on this: enlightened power—the power that fosters acceptance and collaboration. It’s not just the power to the people hype.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
People are waking up. And we are angry because we take many policy issues very seriously. So seriously that we wouldn’t let Pepsi get away with their recent cringe-worthy ad. (Sorry, Kendall, but it was really bad.)
Conversations are encouraged left and right about the many social issues that we face. Fighting division with collaboration, conversations, information dissemination, and education.
Everything is exposed or put under the light. Multiple identities, which include social class, race, gender, sexual orientation, mental and physical illness, and many more are now overlapping or intersecting to fight shaming and discrimination. American civil rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw call the meeting of these identities intersectionality. And we have witnessed this during the recent 2017 Women’s March, which involved massive rallies throughout America and around the world that addressed not only women’s issues but also healthcare, racial discrimination, gay rights, and many others.
But this power is up against the power that we are familiar with: ego-based power. The power that involves domination and control. What’s scarier is that it doesn’t just reside with a few. It’s also among groups or population. Within the populism wave we are witnessing, collective egoism is surging as well which ends up supporting authoritarian types of power.
ENLIGHTENED POWER vs EGO-BASED POWER
Personal and positional power are two kinds of power often discussed. Personal power is a power that is related to one’s competencies, while positional power is more based on the title. But let’s take it a step further by differentiating enlightened power versus ego-based power.
Enlightened power stems from connection. It involves truly understanding what others are saying, beyond words or even actions. It involves putting yourself in other people’s shoes but also understanding the differing realities many of us find ourselves in.
Enlightened power motivates and empowers others. It is free and sets people free, and thus it enables freedom. It is not a power that only wishes to suppress or control others. It does not dim the light of others.
It sees a position as a responsibility, not a means for gaining fame, serving self-interests, or compensating for an insecurity.
“I did not become Earl because I aspired to be one. It came about because of other people’s actions. And I did not become king out of ambition, but once again I had no choice as a result of other people’s actions. But nonetheless, I am king. King Ragnar, that is my name.”
―Ragnar Lothbrok, Vikings
It may sound like a fantasy, but the characteristics of enlightened power are simply devoid of anything identified with the ego. That means it doesn’t operate out of fear, lack or insecurity, but rather from a position of genuine maturity and understanding. Enlightened power is something we have difficulty grasping because we often see power in terms of ruling and demands, which end up overlooking many other genuine human needs.
Ego-based power, as the name suggests, is identified with the ego. Ego is often associated with outcome and validation. As Eckhart Tolle said, it’s the mind identified (even obsessed) with form. It operates within certainty, which is often related to insecurity and fear. Thus, it believes more in self-preservation than collaboration. Suppression, enslavement, deception, and other means to maintain control are often involved.
The difference between enlightened power and ego-based power is the consideration of social dynamics or social interest. And this is why in history, ego-based powers are usually overthrown or deposed. Enlightened power, or at least something close to it, is preferred for working democracies and social systems.
POWER IS EVERYWHERE AND IT STARTS WITH YOU
You have enough power by yourself in the little things you do. Power dynamics exists everywhere and in the many things we deal with on a daily basis.
From the time we wake up, we have to overcome the power of our own bodies to start getting out of bed. On the way to work, you have to share the road with other cars. You have to fill gas in your car because it would have the power to stall you if left empty. And during work, you have to interact with others in the office. Aside from work, we have social lives, too.
We share power with others. We bestow it more on those who can take the responsibility. That is why power is best earned and given, and it requires accountability.
The concept of First Among Equals and Knights of the Round Table from King Arthur’s story is a good reflection of this. Instead of seeing a simple hierarchical system, the circular symbolism of power helps King Arthur be in check in his hold of enormous power.
Keeping someone in power in check is simply a reminder that one does not always know everything. When there is no sense of accountability and proper guidance, power can become destructive. It’s like getting a criticism every once in a while from a friend to tell us the harsh reality about ourselves and what we do, instead of the usual “you’re amazing,” which can delude you. This is why power predisposes deluded self-love or narcissism and is often found among those with few or no peers to answer to.
“Self-love is a good thing but self-awareness is more important.”
You wield power within your family and among friends or simply in your interactions with others. At times you can be a controlling person or a “dick-tate-or,” when you fall into the trap of constantly dictating instead of working with others and seeing through what’s really going on. As comedian Louis C.K. pointed out, sometimes you have to stop and say “I’m kind of an asshole.”
You can be a controlling father or boyfriend. You can be that emotional vampire who imposes others to treat you well. You can disregard facts and make assumptions because you have to be right. Yeah, as in everyone should bow down and listen to you, while you dim everybody else’s light. Without any sense of accountability, that’s where power is ego-based and destructive.
Your relationship with yourself is one of the most critical power dynamics you have to watch. Seeing the world through ourselves is easy and gives us the idea that what we see is right, even it’s not the case. Just like famous neuroscientist Sam Harris said, the self is an illusion. We see things through our own sphere and we think it’s the only reality. But it’s not all about you.
You have the power to delude yourself or to be honest with yourself. If that power is used more on the former, then you’re bound to face social rejection. How you treat yourself spills into how you treat others. If you’re honest with yourself, then you’ll connect more with others. Even if someone is involved in some form of collective egoism (with others who are the same), it’s still based off of fear or insecurity, which is not sustainable and can lead to group conflicts or group downfall.
Men often experience a moment in which they find some measure of success and end up getting sucked in to the delusion that they’ve got it all figured out. Yes, they get some measure of success, but when it comes to the connection department they are still lacking.
Not so long ago, I advised a few guys who have decent jobs or businesses, homes, and cars, but are clueless as to why their ex-girlfriends dumped them or ended their engagements. What I found out is that they were just doing things for the sake of doing them, but they had no deeper meaning and were emotionally empty or disconnected. They were stuck in their own minds and in the habit of getting things, but ended up facing a brick wall as to where it all leads to. Their lack of self-awareness enables the vicious cycle of being emotionally unsatisfied or empty because they’re not learning how to get the connection we all need.
In the process, they end up developing a deep-seated sense of inferiority because they feel alone. Some of them don’t even know that they have been doing it for years. But they cling to what makes them superior, not realizing that what makes them superior isn’t necessarily going to solve what makes them inferior. It becomes the issue of self-preservation, and thus it’s ego-based.
They just have to learn the hard way or simply go through the learning process, which involves time (like learning anything new, such as embracing uncomfortable conversations or facing criticisms). But it’s difficult, for they often take it personally due to their sense of inferiority. And the more painful it is, the longer it’s left unaddressed.
With ego, the easy way out is preferred. Painful truths are avoided. Instant gratification or magic pills become the illusion brought by power. The problem is not faced head-on, and there’s more biting than what can be chewed. The ego continues to take over and starts focusing on appearing to be sociable and mature instead of being sociable and mature. Thus, the truth is bound to come out like it always does, with people involved saying the person is controlling. He then pushes others away.
Because controlling is all he could do.