The Power Paradox: Gaining and Losing Power

Power is an interesting study. Reading the book, The Power Paradox, opened my eyes to how power power paradoxand powerlessness play into our lives in dramatic ways. I’ll talk about power in this post and powerlessness in an upcoming post.

Author, Dacher Keltner believes that our culture’s understanding of power came from Machiavelli’s book, The Prince. He says:

The Prince offers a philosophy of power suitable to such violent times, treating power in its purest form as “force and fraud.” We gain and keep such power by committing coercive and unpredictable acts that are impetuous, fierce, and violent.

We hold on to such power by appearing virtuous even though we harbor other intentions. This kind of power quiets (or kills) rivals and critics, inspires allegiances, and mutes the masses. Through coercive force and fraud, we dominate. Dacher Keltner. The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence (p. 20). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This definition relates so closely to what I’ve written in this blog about toxic pastors and what I observed in the recent political campaign. The “force and fraud” isn’t as blatant as in Machiavelli’s era, but is present nonetheless.

This expression of power doesn’t stem from confidence but fear. The Machiavellian leader is afraid they are losing power so they resort to manipulation to grasp power before it slips away.

This grasp might work in the short run but, ironically, it eventually leads to a loss of power…the very thing they feared. People subjected to abusive power will only submit to it for a season before they say, “enough” and revolt (think abusive marriages, churches, bosses, and governments).  The author explains:

People resort to coercive force when their power is actually slipping. In our professional lives, people who endorse Machiavellian strategies to social life— lying, manipulating, and stepping on others to rise in the ranks— actually report experiencing less power and influence than the average person…Today coercive force is a more likely path to powerlessness than to gains in power.  The Power Paradox (p. 21).

The Power Paradox and Gaining Power

So, how does one gain power? Keltner says that power is not gained by grasping it but by receiving it from others. People are eager to give you power in their lives when you show acts of kindness that benefit them. The author says that power:

…is given to us by others rather than grabbed. We gain power by acting in ways that improve the lives of other people in our social networks…Our power is found in simple acts that bind people together and yield the greatest benefits for the group. The difference we make in the world depends …on raising the right question, offering encouragement, connecting people who don’t know one another, suggesting a new idea. Power is surprisingly available in daily acts of social life.   Critical to avoiding the power paradox is recognizing   that enduring power hinges on doing simple things that are good for others. The Power Paradox (p. 35).

Kelner adds by saying:

…we empower others through daily acts of influence: by acknowledging another’s good work, by offering an encouraging phrase or making appreciative eye contact, or by giving others responsibilities, resources, and opportunities. The Power Paradox (p. 38).

The Power Paradox and Losing Power

What I found especially interesting is how people who gain power can easily lose it. While gaining power came from showing kindness, the power they receive often causes them to distance themselves from others, lose empathy, grow selfish, and eventually lose power.

People are eager to give you power in their lives when you show acts of kindness that benefit them.

I saw this played out recently in my study of King David in the Bible. When David was young he fought for the people and they championed him as their king. But once he gained power he grew distant and selfish, choosing to commit adultery and even murder to cover up the adultery. The people took note and when David’s son Absalom offered them his leadership as a viable alternative, their hearts went with him. Power gained and lost. (You can find this story in 1 & 2 Samuel).

Whatever your position of power might be (teacher, pastor, parent, manager, etc.), be aware that your position naturally tempts you to neglect the empathy and kindness that put you in power in the first place. Don’t fall into the trap of coercing people to maintain your power. What got you power (empathy and kindness) will keep you in power.

Check out The Power Paradox here.