On The Nature Of Power

According to the famous definition by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, power is simply the ability to effect change and achieve purpose. After a decade of research, I still can’t think of a definition that better captures the essence of power and its dynamics at every level, from an individual to a family to to an organization to an entire government.

This definition also explains the opposite of – powerlessness – which the perceived or factual inability to effect change. Ironically, coming from the background of mental health, it was studying the nature and dynamics of powerlessness that eventuaally led me to research power. Sometimes you learn about most important things in life from becoming painfully familiar with their opposites. During first years of my clinical practice, I observed powerlessness in my fellow medical workers in Russia, most of whom were oppressed, underpaid, and exploited by the country’s metastatically corrupt healthcare system and conditioned to keep silence about institutionalized medical malpractice, which hurt thousands of patients. After leaving that system, I saw powerlessness in LGBTQ+ clients who reached out to me for therapy and coaching, believing that their lives were broken beyond repair by the trauma of systemic oppression. I saw powerlessness in my own parents, who lived the majority of their life under the Soviet rule and had their vision of life defined by scarcity of power and resources. I saw powerlessness in burnt-out political activists in Russia who gave up on their efforts to fight corruption with promoting civil discourse and democratic ways of thinking. I lived amidst collective powerlessness for the majority of my life, and it would be naive for me to believe I was unaffected by it.

And here’s what I can tell you, both from my research and multidisciplinary field experience:

Powerlessness is the single most dangerous condition we can ever experience, both individually and collectively. It leads to shame, isolation, self-harm, depression, burn-out, aggression and absolutely sabotages courage, self-worth, and critical thinking.

And even if you look beyond the confined horizons of countries like Russia, the question remains: why in the world that has so much observable and measurable potential for change, there are still millions of people who feel powerless, in their families, in their workplace, in their communities, or even in their nations, and engage in dangerous, unproductive behaviors as a result?

Answering this question took me two years of contextualization, curiosity, and hypothesis testing. The cultural discourses around the #MeToo movement, the Brexit referendum, and the 2016 election of Donald Trump to U.S. presidency, just like my own experience of publishing a book in America, became my data pieces along with the interviews of individual people around the world. The picture emerged clearly in my data by the end of 2018.

It all boils down to how we think about power, and how we consequently implement it in systems and institutions.

The traditional historical model of power, passed from generation to generation, is power over. It is a paradigm where people are set into a pyramid-like hierarchy, and only those few at the top have the real ability to effect change.

This system has three inherent features. The first is scarcity: power here is conceptualized and treated as an immutably scarce, finite resource – like a pizza that only has six slices. What that means is that sharing power with those who don’t have is seen as diminishing the power of whoever shares it and thus adamantly resisted.

The second is lack of upward mobility: in systems of power over, power is conferred to people mostly not because of their merits or talents, but because of privilege, favoritism, nepotism, bribery and other corrupt practices. In other words, systems of power over are unfair not because they’re broken – but because they are designed this way. This can be easily seen in the historical systems of identity-based oppression: white people and men got power over people of color and women not because whiteness or masculinity was an earned merit, but because it was an unearned privilege. The same dynamic can today be seen in any institution, corporation, industry, or even government that in fact chooses privilege over talent. A good example is American universities allowing admission of students based on their rich parents becoming generous donors or their parents’ graduation records, as detailed in the first chapter of Michael Sandel’s book The Tyranny of Merit.

The third is, people left without power in systems of power over are experiencing chronic trauma, whether they’re aware of it or not. They exist in the survival mode, not in a normal mental condition where they can actualize their biggest talents and bring their whole selves to the table. That’s why there’s an increasing body of evidence that, in a global market economy, practicing power over isn’t only unethical – it’s ineffective. Because when we lead, manage, govern, or even parent from the position of power, we by definition disempower, silence, and exclude people who have great ideas, insights, stories, and perspectives to contribute.

What are the alternatives then?

The feminist movement brought them into cultural spotlight and academic studies back in the 1960s. Power with, power among, and power to are systems where power, just like accountability, is distributed instead of being hoarded: because it’s no longer seen as finite. Rather, it’s seen as fire: by sharing it with others we don’t have any less of it left to ourselves, but we create more of it out there.

Mind you: every time I share this fire metaphor, especially in front of high-ranking finance executives, people get panicked. Power over by definition makes us think that it’s the only way any power can work, otherwise systems will fall apart. The fire metaphor sort of feeds this mythology: if dismantle power-over-sustained hierarchies, aren’t we left with chaos and debris then? Isn’t power over the skeleton or the glue that holds together all systems, from families to banks to governments?

That’s an argument as obsolete and unfounded as the one saying that shame is an effective moral compass. In reality, dismantling power over doesn’t mean destroying hierarchies or the structural makeup of systems; it means changing the relational dynamics of system so that the hierarchy of power is replaced by the hierarchy of accountability.

In other words, power among as an alternative to power over, for example, doesn’t mean that an intern would have the same operational capacities as a CFO; it means that all people in the organization, regardless of their position, would be provided with a meaningful, measurable, and observable way to effect change aligned with the values and goals of that organization – all the while taking full responsibility for that change.

For example, it means that feedback practices become clear, transparent, and impactful instead of remaining formal and bureaucratic. It means that decision-making tables have enough seats for everybody to bring their perspectives and insights, and that the culture doesn’t make people feel like the relevance or the value of their ideas is tied to their formal position, their credentials, or their privileged/oppressed identities.

To help people understand the difference, I share a political example: a feudal monarchy versus a modern democracy. In a monarchy, power is hoarded and inherited. In a democratic system, power is delegated to temporarily elected officials. In it, an ordinary citizen doesn’t have the same kind of power as the president or the prime minister, but they do have the real ability to effect change in a country by virtue of vote.

There isn’t a perfect democracy anywhere: things like corruption, favoritism, and privilege inheritance still exist. But their prevalence vastly varies from country to country, and it’s hardly deniable that in the modern world, the more democratic a country is, the better its economic output becomes, translating into well-being for all citizens, rather than a handful of the privileged few.

There's an increasing body of evidence that same principles apply to corporations, small teams, and even families. When everybody has power (even though not exactly the same kind of power), people feel, think, and fare differently than within a traditional dynamic of power over.

Just like the shift from monarchies and authoritarian governments towards democratic systems wasn’t fast, easy, and linear for the majority of countries, neither is it for teams and institutions, even in the most economically advanced and culturally progressive parts of the world.

Our conditioning around power took centuries to build up, therefore it’s hard to shake. Power-over is the armored style of leadership, and it’s armory is backed by history. Daring leadership is a relatively new paradigm, which requires proactively prioritizing curiosity, critical thinking, and emotional literacy. It demands cultivating self-awareness, courage, and grounded confidence as organizational, not just individual, values. Make no mistake: conversations about power are disruptive. They often get awkward and emotionally charged. When you explore topics inherently related to the nature of power, such as shame, privilege, and scarcity, far too many people get triggered. Not necessarily around their workplace issues (plenty as those might be), but even around some personal stuff they’ve worked hard to bury and disown for years.

But that work is so transformative and impactful that it’s worth doing anyway – and the workplace sometimes even becomes a better place to do it than a therapist’s office, because in the workplace we do it together. At work, we can learn, unlearn, relearn, and hold space for one another like nowhere else. Most of all, an organization that prioritizes and facilitates conversations about power inevitably creates a culture that scores high on trust, courage and belonging.

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