In interpersonal relationships, power is frequently defined as the capacity to produce a particular outcome. Last year I followed a discussion thread in a Harvard Business Review (HBR) LinkedIn group devoted to defining power. The vast majority of the thousands of people who put forth a definition described power in terms of its effects.
Joan Balmer, a retired colleague, has pointed out to me that although these are the accepted definitions of power, they fail to truly capture what power is. It is like defining running as the ability to move rapidly in an unassisted manner from place to place. Such a definition of running tells you nothing about how the limbs work together in relation to each other in a manner that would clearly distinguish running from walking, crawling, and jogging.
So…. what do you think power is? What power does is evident, but what power is, is not. I don’t know what it is, but I have a few thoughts that may shed some light on its nature.
Look at the universe and material world around us. Early in the industrial revolution, heat from coal was applied to water yielding steam under pressure which was then used to power machines such as the railway locomotive. By gaining a deeper understanding of the chemistry of fossil fuels, diesel engines were developed and over time more sophisticated chemistry and physics have led to more and more efficient engines.
The philosophies of relativity and quantum mechanics required probing deeper into nature in order to verify some of their mysterious assertions. The probing led to the release of atomic energy, which is geometrically more potent than any power released at a chemical level of fossil fuels. It is fair to infer that probing further into principles operating in sub-nuclear realms will yield a power source that is massively more powerful than that available through atomic fission or fusion.
It seems that the deeper into the nature of the material world one is able to probe, the greater the source of power. Returning to power in interpersonal relationships, I make the same assertion: Accessing deeper levels of oneself makes one more powerful.
A Buddhist fable is perhaps instructive. A great warrior invading a town said to a monk, “I could cut your head off in the blink of an eye.” The monk’s reply – “I could have my head cut off in the blink of an eye” – provoked the warrior to lay down his sword and reconsider his life. I gather that the warrior noted a greater strength and freedom in the monk’s instant willingness to embrace death than in his ability to kill in an instant. I believe that such statements yielding powerful harm-reducing effects come from deep inside someone’s nature.
The monk in this story did not have a stronger physical weapon but he saved many lives without one. His statement certainly arose from the deep foundation of his character.
Think of a time when you were powerful. Where did your power come from? Let me know by leaving a comment on this blog. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.