#34 What Is Power?

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.

Coolage showing images of power

What is power?

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.



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6 Responses to #34 What Is Power?

  1. Jeremy and Joanne says:

    Confidence is power……don’t you think ?

    • Gordon White says:

      Hi Joanne and Jeremy,

      In my current way of understanding power, there are three subjective sources of power. I will relate it to architecture.

      With an architectural firm you gain power from knowing about the city you are in; land values, market needs, influential people at city hall, etc. so
      1) Knowledge increases power.

      Your skill gives you power; the better designer you are, the better job you can do for clients, the more you can charge and the more business you will have; you gain the power to grow in the direction you want to so
      2) Skill gives you power.

      3) Confidence, courage, determination, diligence, and a host of subjective qualities also confer power. So, although I agree that confidence can increase power, there are many other factors as well.

      There are also many objective sources of power, such as resources, status, and connection. I will leave those aside for now.

  2. Amanda says:

    I think there is a distinct difference between the material, world effecting power that you referenced above and the psychological power displayed in social relationships. In relationship the flows and balances of power does not always run along lines of resources, skills or knowledge. We see children experiment with this from a very young age and it is especially notable within the bounds of sibling rivalry and the ways parents are used to shift sibling power.

    • Gordon White says:

      Hi Amanda,
      On one hand, sure. On the other hand, in all cases I suggest that there will be greater power if one can access a ‘deeper’ layer – whether the deeper layer lies within the material world or the psychological world. What do you think? Gordon

  3. marilyn says:

    When I am reminded, by a loss or sudden death, that everything I have will be taken from me and that sooner of later I will die, I feel quite free – and powerful. Where did the power come from? Maybe from my own realization that I have nothing to lose.

    Maybe from the realization that I have been wasting energy in the attachment to things and ideas.

    • Gordon White says:

      Hi Marilyn,
      I have always loved the existential philosophy contained in the writings of Carlos Castaneda. Carlos teacher, he writes, spoke about death as something to draw power from. Since we are going to die we have already lost everything, and therefore we should have courage to take calculated risks and to act with abandon and freedom accepting fully the consequences of our actions. You are saying the same things. Thank you!

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