“From the time we are young,” writes author Caroline Myss, “we test ourselves and our capacity to learn what and who has power, to attract power, and to use power.” If we decide that we cannot attract power, says Myss, we begin living in a type of “power debt” and imagine ourselves living off the energies of other people—but not our own. “For all of us,” continues Myss, “the challenge is not to become ‘power celibate’ but to achieve sufficient internal strength to interact comfortably with physical power without negotiating away our spirits.”
“Power breeds isolation,” wrote George Reedy, press secretary and special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Reedy went on to say: “Isolation leads to the capricious use of power. In turn, the capricious use of power breaks down the normal channels of communication between the leader and the people whom he [or she] leads. This ultimately means the deterioration of power and with it the capacity to sustain unity in our society. This is the problem we face today.”
Power, or the ability to control oneself and others, is a quality every effective leader possesses. A vital component of effective leadership is that citizens can empower themselves as a result of sharing in the power of a good leader.
There are two struggles with power: for power and against power. The struggle for power carries with it a grave danger for the weakling who would lead, namely that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Of the converse, Milan Kundera wrote that the “struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
A leader must be a good role model in the sharing of power, and one aspect of this model is for a leader to be a potent person in their own right, that is, to have clarity in an other-centered purpose that is vital to those who follow. Leaders who are genuinely powerful with inner authority have no need to dominate the lives of others and do not dwarf others so that they themselves can feel superior. They are, instead, able to appreciate potency in others and in themselves at the same time, which calls forth a thought by Ben Franklin: “Next to knowing when to seize an opportunity, the most important thing to know in life is when to forgo an advantage.”
Clearly, the fact that power can and often is used against people is an ethical concern. Consider, for example, a leader’s use of control to reduce a sense of personal threat and anxiety. A leader who fears losing control because of a personal need to retain control over their constituency, may resort to all kinds of destructive strategies (both consciously and unconsciously), as witnessed every day in local, regional, national, and global newscasts. But leaders are also subject to such abuse by their constituencies through the ego-defense mechanism of projection, which is a person’s attribution of both their unacceptable and most worthy traits to others. For example, a person sees others as deceitful, kindly, or generous, depending on which of those qualities they have within themself.
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Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.
This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.