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Using the Levers of Power: Art or Science?

By : Ziad K. Abdelnour| 14 July 2013
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“It is much safer to be feared than loved,” writes Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince, his classic 16th-century treatise advocating manipulation and occasional cruelty as the best means to power.

Guided by centuries of advice like Machiavelli, we tend to believe that attaining power requires force, deception, manipulation, and coercion. Indeed, we might even assume that positions of power demand this kind of conduct—that to run smoothly, society needs business or political leaders who are willing and able to use power this way.

I cannot disagree more….. In fact, I would take it one step further and say that as seductive as Machiavelli’s notion is, he is dead wrong.

I believe power is wielded today most effectively when it’s used responsibly by people who are attuned to, and engaged with the needs and interests of others. It is a fact that empathy and social intelligence are vastly more important to acquiring and exercising power than are force, deception, or terror. In fact, the skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power.

The power paradox requires that we be ever vigilant against the corruptive influences of power and its ability to distort the way we see ourselves and treat others. But this paradox also makes clear how important it is to challenge myths about power, which persuade us to choose the wrong kinds of leaders and to tolerate gross abuses of power. Instead of succumbing to the Machiavellian worldview—which unfortunately leads us to select Machiavellian leaders— I strongly believe we must promote a different model of power, one rooted in social intelligence, responsibility, and cooperation.

So what are the Myths and Realities about “Power” today?

Myth number one: Power equals cash, votes, and muscle.

The term “power” often evokes images of force and coercion. Many people assume that power is most evident on the floor of the United States Congress or in corporate boardrooms. Treatments of power in the social sciences have followed suit, zeroing in on clashes over cash (financial wealth), votes (participation in the political decision making process), and muscle (military might).

But there are innumerable exceptions to this definition of power: a penniless two year old pleading for (and getting) candy in the check-out line at the grocery store, one spouse manipulating another for sex, or the success of nonviolent political movements in places like India or South Africa. Viewing power as cash, votes, and muscle blinds us to the ways power pervades our daily lives.

I believe power is not something we should (or can) avoid, nor is it something that necessarily involves domination and submission. We are negotiating power every waking instant of our social lives (and in our dreams as well). When we seek equality, we are seeking an effective balance of power, not the absence of power. We use it to win consent and social cohesion, not just compliance. To be human is to be immersed in power dynamics.

Myth number two: Machiavellians win in the game of power.

One of the central questions concerning power is who gets it. After 30 years in the corridors of money and power, I have come to the conclusion that it’s not the manipulative, strategic Machiavellian who rises in power but rather those people who understand and advance the goals of other group members. When it comes to power, social intelligence—reconciling conflicts, negotiating, smoothing over group tensions—prevails over social Darwinism.

Social intelligence is essential not only to rising to power, but to keeping it. In fact, I believe that individuals who are modest about their own power actually rise in hierarchies and maintain the status and respect of their peers, while individuals with an inflated, grandiose sense of power quickly fall to the bottom rungs.

So what is the fate of Machiavellian fans who are willing to deceive, backstab, intimidate, and undermine others in their pursuit of power? I think such individuals who rise to positions of power don’t last there for long as their peers quickly recognize that they will harm others in the pursuit of their own self-interest, and tag them with a reputation of being harmful to the group and not worthy of leadership. It is a fact that cooperation and modesty aren’t just ethical ways to use power, and they don’t only serve the interests of a group; they’re also valuable skills for people who seek positions of power and want to hold onto them.

Myth number three: Power is strategically acquired, not given.

A major reason why Machiavellians fail is that they fall victim to a third myth about power. They mistakenly believe that power is acquired strategically in deceptive gamesmanship and by pitting others against one another. Here Machiavelli failed to appreciate an important fact in the evolution of human hierarchies: that with increasing social intelligence, subordinates can form powerful alliances and constrain the actions of those in power. Power increasingly has come to rest on the actions and judgments of other group members. A person’s power is only as strong as the status given to that person by others. In fact, I believe we can give power to others simply by being respectfully polite.

Machiavellians quickly acquire reputations as individuals who act in ways that are inimical to the interests of others, and these reputations act like a glass ceiling, preventing their rise in power.

In The Prince, Machiavelli observes,

“Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good. Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires.” He adds, “A prince ought, above all things, always to endeavor in every action to gain for himself the reputation of being a great and remarkable man.”

I think the “power master” is in here totally delusional as I believe – like the Chinese Old Masters – that to lead the people you’ve got to walk behind them first.

“Power tends to corrupt indeed; and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said the British historian Lord Acton. Unfortunately, this is not entirely a myth, as the actions of Europe’s monarchs, Enron’s executives, and out-of- control pop stars reveal. A great deal of research—especially from social psychology—lends support to Acton’s claim, albeit with a twist: Power leads people to act in impulsive fashion, both good and bad, and to fail to understand other people’s feelings and desires.

Power is given to those individuals, groups, or nations who advance the interests of the greater good in socially-intelligent fashion. Yet unfortunately, having power renders many individuals as impulsive and poorly attuned to others, making them prone to act abusively and lose the esteem of their peers. What people want from leaders—social intelligence—is what is damaged by the experience of power.

When we start recognizing this paradox and all the destructive behaviors that flow from it, we can start then truly appreciating the importance of promoting a more socially-intelligent model of power. Social behaviors are dictated by social expectations. As we debunk long-standing myths and misconceptions about power, we can better identify the qualities powerful people should have, and better understand how they should wield their power. As a result, we’ll have much less tolerance for people who lead by deception, coercion, or undue force. No longer will we expect these kinds of antisocial behaviors from our leaders – business and political alike – and silently accept them when they come to pass.

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