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The Persistent Malpractice of ‘Power’

To expand our capacity to make this world a more inclusive and equitable place, we need to rewrite the concept and practice of ‘power’.

When I was a kid, my siblings and I played a game where we randomly swapped words to describe situations. For example, a chair would become the table; and a table would become the wall, and the wall would become the chair. The play would revolve around constructing a story with these swapped words. “Let me pull out a wall (chair) for you,” or “Where is the chair (table) cloth?” We laughed as the story progressed because the statements sounded silly when contrasted with the concrete images in our minds. I was more confident in the meaning that different words conveyed to us as a kid than in recent years when I am beginning to feel significantly less assured.

We all know that language profoundly shapes the way we think. Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive scientist at USCD, discusses the deep, broad, and weighty ways language impacts how we act and live. She relates language to our space and time orientation, visualization, and description of events. In his book, Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker, a renowned experimental psychologist, argues that language emerges from the human mind interacting with each other. Thus, it offers a window into human nature.

Within this context, let us consider the concept of ‘power.’ The most used description, reiterated in management development and Business 101 (or Organization Behavior) classes around the world, refers to it as the capacity to influence the behavior of others; such that it affects the control of resources in an organization. The predominant rationalist management paradigm highlights the importance of power and argues that leaders must exert power to achieve organizational goals. This understanding has enabled self-centered behavior and left an unfortunate impact on leaders and the dynamics within the organizations.

Power, as the formal authority and the control mechanism, has become the basic unit of leadership. Corporate cultures endow leaders with different sources of power (such as legitimate, reward, and coercive) and incentivize them to exercise it. There is plenty of advice on utilizing it so that power doesn’t get underutilized and unrecognized. Such a perspective has presented power as a zero-sum game and influenced leaders to leverage power strategically and primarily for self-promotion or self-gain. The result is the concentration of power in the hands of a few, toxic cultures, and vastly inequitable organizations. While a critical perspective disrupts this top-down view by presenting leadership as contested and distributed, it retains the same focus- resisting, challenging, and transforming power relations. Hence, there are daily examples of political and corporate leaders seriously engaged in power struggles- that benefit a few but marginalize many.

We are all aware of the political leaders who sweet talk in public but abuse their power and disregard the vulnerable in private. If you study leaders as I do, you expect them to do exactly that- i.e., self-promote and use their power to leave others powerless.

In discussing Andrew Cuomo’s blatant sexualized harassment, Rebecca Traister described leaders’ misuse of power quite well. She stated, “it would be insanity to believe that happened, too, but it did. And it’s not actually insanity; it’s power and how it covers for itself in ways that bear no relationship to truth or even plausibility”.

I have observed my fair share of leaders jockeying for power in my research and the organizations I have worked for. With persistent malpractice of power so deeply ingrained in the organizational DNA, it is hard to break this vicious cycle for those who try. Even empowerment (the degree of autonomy and self-determination that is critical for enabling individuals and communities), when granted, hasn’t fulfilled a vision of common good- because it is mainly used for self-promotion and often devoid of a sense of shared responsibility.

Language matters- it shapes our perceptions and reality. The meaning assigned to power has bred arrogance and inflated ego, shaping a hyper-competitive human nature focused on individual achievement, wealth maximization, and productivity gains. It has provided a false sense of success and enabled a perpetual desire to control at a personal level. At a macro level, it has created an efficiency trap. The problem with control is that it is seductively elusive (the more you have it, the more you want it, and the harder you try). It promotes selfish and toxic leaders with twisted narratives. It tires the mind, breaks connections, and results in losing inner peace.

In his book, “The Social Conquest of Earth’, Edward Wilson offers a contrasting view of human nature- as eusocial. As humans, we are hard-wired to ‘bond’ for the survival of the species at large and not simply for individual utility maximization. While it is undoubtedly tricky going against the tides, fortunately, it is also possible to create a new reality using our language. We know that languages evolve. With that knowledge, let us consider a different understanding- that the true power lies neither in controlling others nor shaping self-centered outcomes but giving up the control to have better control over our well-being and others’.

Power is our collective ability to engage with a sense of responsibility for a common good- based on our shared humanity. It is expanding our capacity to make this world a more inclusive and equitable place to work and live.

Boroditsky argues that the human brain is creative and flexible. Our ability to learn and grow has helped us survive throughout our history.

Driven by the recent crises, I believe we are ready to rewrite a new meaning of power- that focuses on building equitable organizations for human flourishing.

From playing mind games to engaging with others will be a significant shift. Interdisciplinary research indicates we will not be going against our nature. Instead, we will be genuinely fulfilling our capacity of collective effort for collective outcomes while also finding inner peace of mind.

Shaista E. Khilji, Aug 8, 2021

This article has emerged from the “Humanizing Initiative,” which seeks to humanize leaders and organizations to cultivate humanistic leadership. For more information, please refer to https://www.humanizinginitiative.com

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Shaista E. Khilji is Professor at the George Washington University University. She is also Founder of the Humanizing Initiative.

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Shaista E. Khilji

Shaista E. Khilji

Shaista E. Khilji is Professor at the George Washington University University. She is also Founder of the Humanizing Initiative.

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