This excerpt from Terranautics 101: The Basics for Navigating an Uncertain Future deals with one of the most important abilities—and issues—in the whole book: the right use of power and influence. To be honest, this skillset has as much to do with being ethical as it does with being effective. In March 2013 my wife, Cedar Barstow, and I brought out a co-authored book entitled Living in the Power Zone: How Right Use of Power Can Transform Your Relationships (Many Realms Publishing). This work was a lay-readership-oriented version of Cedar’s earlier, longer book, The Right Use of Power—The Heart of Ethics (Many Realms Publishing, 2008), subtitled A Resource for the Helping Professional. Both books are based on her two-decades-old work assisting both helping professionals and lay people to use their personal and role power wisely and well—work now being carried forward by the nonprofit Right Use of Power Institute in Boulder, Colorado. In the next few pages I shall try to summarize Cedar’s and my thinking on how to use power sensitively and wisely.
The basic assumption of this body of work is that power is value neutral. The word itself means simply the ability to have an effect or have influence. I think of horse power, that motive energy that can transport people from place to place or even into space and that can also be lethal. The second assumption is that if people are willing—a big if, I admit—virtually anyone can learn to use their power with greater wisdom, sensitivity, and skill. Cedar has in fact developed workshops of various lengths to help participants do just that; has taught those workshops, sometimes with my assistance, around the world; and has also trained more than 250 facilitators to teach Right Use of Power as well.
According to Cedar there are four types of power: personal, professional or role, status, and collective. There’s not much an individual can do about status power, although collectively over time statuses can change. An example of the latter is the Women’s Movement, which has raised the general status and social power of women in many countries. Whereas several generations ago, women were restricted to the German Three Ks (Kinder, Kueche, and Kirche; children, kitchen, and church), the United States may be on the threshold of having a female president, something Germany has had in Chancellor Merkel for a decade. Collective power, as in the Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and labor unionism, is based, meanwhile, on the united power of the many. As the Japanese proverb puts it, one stick is easily broken, but a dozen sticks bound together are not.
The Right Use of Power Program focuses primarily on personal and role power. The former is the birthright of everyone. Even a screaming baby has the ability to get others to do its bidding. When it comes to role power, we put on power vis à vis others when we gain the authority of a position. For example, the lowliest managers have power over those reporting to them, while a company’s CEO has power over all the managers, vice presidents, and even her or his Number Two. The question for Cedar is how one negotiates this power differential. Her conclusion is that to be both ethical and effective, we have to use whatever power we have with sensitivity to the feelings and humanity of those below us in the chain of command. Her point is that while an authoritarian boss who uses their up-power position without such sensitivity may get grudging, fear-based support from his or her staff, a leader adept at using power wisely will develop a team that enthusiastically helps achieve the company’s priority goals.
So what must up-power people keep in mind to work most effectively with those lower than them in the pecking order? First, there is the 150% Principle. In any lopsided relationship the boss must remember that whereas all parties to that relationship have 100% responsibility for its success, he or she as the up-power person has for better or worse an additional 50%. What this means in practice is that parents, for example, who are by definition up-power to their children, have to be especially careful about what they say or do. Why? Because a word of criticism or the breaking of a promise on their part can have a profound negative effect on their child. The same is true in the boss-employee relationship. A related idea is understanding that the impact of what we do doesn't necessarily equate with our intentions. Thinking back a generation or two, parents who spanked their children would routinely say things like “I’m doing this for your own good.” From the child’s perspective, however, this larger, stronger authority figure was simply acting like a bully. Often, in fact, the abused child ends up becoming an abuser him- or herself as a parent, and a vicious cycle (the impact) is created from the desire to be a good parent (the intent). Terranauts, especially as they come into leadership positions, therefore need to take into account the importance of implementing the 150% Principle and track when the desired impacts of what they do fail to line up with their intentions. At that point they must have the maturity to make mid-point corrections to insure a more favorable outcome.
A third important concept of the Right Use of Power work is that feedback is an investment in relationship. Often, people in power are screened off and protected from hearing bad news. Moreover, it is frequently dangerous for down-power individuals to suggest to the boss that he or she may be doing something that is self-defeating or wrong. This fear-of-losing-your-job syndrome is doubtless why, in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale, none of the king’s courtiers dared to tell their majesty that he was naked. Instead, it took a child who wasn’t on the court payroll. Similarly, in the crash some years ago of an Asian commercial airliner, the co-pilot noticed, per the cockpit recorder, that the pilot had made a life-endangering mistake but was unwilling or unable to point out or correct that mistake of his superior. As a result, several hundred passengers and the entire crew lost their lives. Apparently, the co-pilot was unable to give this crucial feedback to his boss out of respect for the latter’s authority. Yet while providing timely feedback can be crucial, it also creates a stronger bond between the up- and down-power individuals provided the former has the capacity and humility to ask for, graciously accept, and—if appropriate—implement feedback from those in down-power positions.
Obviously, in three pages I am unable to do more than touch upon several of the important concepts and techniques in a body of work contained in 450+ pages of printed text. Nevertheless, Cedar’s overall recommendation can be summarized thus: While standing in our power, we should stay in our hearts. In other words, we need to remember how it feels when those in power treat us well or badly and behave towards those below us as we would want to be treated by our own supervisors. After all, even the mightiest CEO has a board of directors over him or her, and even the President of the United States when he (currently) goes in for his annual physical is down-power to his physician.
If this Golden Rule-style philosophy seems out of place in the corridors of power, this absence may be the cause of so much of the bad news we read about daily in our newspapers. Outstanding leaders rally and mentor their followers by good examples and fair treatment; bad ones do just the opposite. I thus encourage Terranauts to remember and internalize the principles and practices outlined above and to learn to exercise whatever power they have or may assume with wisdom, sensitivity, and skill.