Power Over? Power Under? Power Within!

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Win/win behavior is not based on power-over and power-under but power-within and then power-between, power-in-service-to, shared power and much more benefits all people.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Nelson Mandela

I was born and raised in Ferguson, MO and recent events there have provided an opportunity to write on beliefs about power.  Each of us might ask, “In any given moment, am I exercising power-over, power-under or power-within?”  And by power-within, I mean the only authentic power there is –NOT power derived from fear and limitation but from love.

For many centuries, people who practiced power-over exemplified our ideal of legitimate authority.  Yet as recent as the 1700s, immigrants flocked to the U.S. at great risk in order to set up a new world in which “all men are created equal.” Because we had little experience creating systems to support this, the vast majority fell into behaviors and created structures in which some were perceived as superior and others as inferior.  I used to think superior people were “bad guys” and inferior people were “innocent victims.”  It’s not always that simple, especially not today.

We have mostly fallen asleep concerning our choices about how to use power.  For centuries, power-over was perceived as normal and acceptable even though it is a win/lose dynamic. No one is ever winning when someone is losing.  While it may not seem so, those exercising power-over are no different than those engaging in power-under.  Both are operating from fear, anger, resentment, and hostility.

The only dynamic shifting on this seesaw is who has the most power-over.  Sometimes those in the inferior position ban together to retaliate using their own version of power-over, usually perceived as rebellion.  Hence corruption and violence: between unions and businesses, between races, sexes, generations, and religions. In reality, power-over and power-under actually perpetuate the same experiences in all and keep legitimizing both as valid. This is the reason we have had painful, slow, start-stop progress.

What’s the answer?  Until each of us gets off this seesaw of inauthentic and irresponsible use of power and chooses instead authentic power-within, we are doomed to be in cycles of ongoing retaliation.  In addition to how this impacts our schools, neighborhoods, communities and world, how does this impact your business?  Every time you or your staff acts without a healthy relationship to authority and power, there are tragic and wasteful consequences, large and small, no matter how noble outward actions appear.

Last week, I was working with a group of Directors, responsible collectively for 1000 people.  I helped them learn to recognize how, when and with whom they keep themselves in a lesser, inferior and powerless position?  Also, how, when and with whom they keep themselves in an inflated, superior and over-powering position.

I used this concept throughout their day-long workshop in exercises, including how they make requests, build or break trust, deal with gossip, overcome frustrations, influence cooperation and develop and model leadership.  When they got on the seesaw, I’d say, “Did you just respond from power-over, power-under or power-within?”  They quickly recognized their choice and it’s effects.

Back to Ferguson: None of us has an excuse for continuing on a lose/lose seesaw as inferior or superior, in Ferguson or anywhere else.  No matter our education, opportunities, history, genetics or circumstances, we have all seen at least one person who has or currently demonstrates power-within and we have no justifications to remain inadequately self-aware and self-managing.  We are not prisoners of our history or conditions.

As published in the column The Extraordinary Workplace, St. Louis Small Business Monthly, October 2014

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