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Got Power?

Do you feel you have power?

Power is an interesting notion. Recently, I was at the TED conference where I was hanging out with some pretty powerful people (CEOs, general managers, thought leaders, inventors, fellows, authors, and so on) so I thought I would ask them how they got their power, and how powerful they felt believing that some would share stories of collaboration.

Not only did I not get what I expected, I learned something about power itself.  It turns out that talking about power is like a Rorschach test. Some people were clear that they were powerful, some thought power was evil (meaning they thought power could be easily corrupted), but the vast majority thought that power was something that didn’t apply to them. They thought power was something other people had.

Does this surprise you? Probably not. Since that conference, I’ve carried on this conversation with about a hundred people. A lot of people feel the same way. If you had a normal distribution curve with folks who think power is evil on one side, and the ones who felt they owned Power on the other, the vast majority were in the middle.

The challenge with people feeling powerless is this: we don’t see how we can contribute to solve problems. We believe it is “someone else’s” to own rather than something any of us can contribute to. Powerlessness leads to apathy on global issues and disdain on local issues.

Without understanding or believing in our own power, we never engage. And engagement is what creates connections and ultimately value creation. Now I am thinking a lot about the power of collaboration and what it can do to shift power inside organizations to be distributed and shared by many. But I realize so many people think that power isn’t theirs to begin with.

So I started to think about who both collaborates and has power to see if that could offer a lesson for all of us to both get our own power and see the power of collaboration. And you know who does both collaboration AND power? Batman and his crew. That’s right the Cape Crusaders! Batman didn’t do the world-saving-things himself; he understood the power of a Robin and an Alfred and he collaborated well with the police. He got the value of collaboration. And I think it made him and his party more powerful in their mission. There are 7 lessons of collaboration that Batman can teach all of us.

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7 Responses:

  1. Anonymous. March 5, 2010 at 5:15 pm  |  

    Hey Nilofer,Power must be crackling through the air. I am having tons of conversations with many of my colleagues and clients who are wrestling with this very issue.One activity I find incredibly valuable in this area is creating a manifesto. A manifesto, you say? Isn’t that too radical? A manifesto is merely “a public written declaration of principles, policies, and objectives”. It’s just a list of what you believe, how you’ll behave, and what you’ll achieve. The great benefit of a manifesto is the clarity it brings. By writing it down, you more clearly define what you want and how you want to get it. And the increased clarity makes it easier to find, achieve, and/or attract what you want.Folks can take a peek at my own Personal Power Manifesto at http://www.howtoaskformoney.com/turn-on-your-personal-power. Hope it inspires a few to flip their own power switches.Great post, and definitely a topic to ignite a great discussion and collaboration!Barbara

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  2. Nilofer Merchant. March 5, 2010 at 5:19 pm  |  

    Babs – if anyone can ignite power in others, you can. Go at it!

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  3. Jon Ericson. March 5, 2010 at 5:27 pm  |  

    “It turns out that talking about power is like a Rorschach test.” – Nice!Make no mistake: what really gave Batman power was his cool utility belt. :) He always had problems collaborating with Catwoman, though…

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  4. Nilofer Merchant. March 5, 2010 at 5:50 pm  |  

    Men and their belts! women and their bullet-repelling-cuffs! did you get a chance to watch video?

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  5. Anonymous. March 5, 2010 at 6:59 pm  |  

    I came across this through Twitter. Nice post. I recently read an interesting study on power and the illusion of control. When people *think* they have power, they tend to believe they have more control of a situation than reality merits, even when it comes to things like rolling dice (literally).This reinforces your thesis, that people who feel powerful are indeed more likely to assert their will, take action and influence things, because they feel they are in control. On the other hand, it suggests a caveat, if “the illusion of control” clouds judgment to a degree that leads to negative outcomes. Like most things in life, it turns out it’s about finding the right balance.Either way, if you’re interested in a little academic background on this dynamic, here’s the paper: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/fulltext/122220712/PDFSTART?CRETRY

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  6. Jon Ericson. March 5, 2010 at 9:26 pm  |  

    Okay, you asked if I had seen the video. I had not, but now I have. Still looking for how Catwoman fits into the Batman metaphor. She was neither totally good nor totally evil but always had total power over men. (wink, wink)

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  7. Jay Rhoderick. March 15, 2010 at 4:23 am  |  

    Fascinating stuff, Nilofer (and witty as well)! This begs the question of how to handle the self-collaborating character of the nefarious Two-Face, but we can save that for another time. All of this makes me think about my work bringing improvisation to professionals (and working with actors). Improv is interested in status. Mick Napier and others talk about “taking care fo yourself first” in order to give a scene or any improvised relationship a strong start. If I clearly and powerful establish myself in the relationship as portraying The Riddler, say, then my scene partner has been given a huge amount of information. I’ve also assumed the beneficial power of clarity for us both. We both KNOW who I am. And furthermore, I have taken status: I am a smart, sneaky, dangerous guy. As a character, I have high status by virtue of being clever. Then the really interesting and creative stuff starts to happen: my improv partner gets to work off of that–in a higher status (say, as a Batman who has just solved my riddle) or in a lower status (a frightened bank teller whom i have just robbed). The assumption of a DEGREE of power–status–is how the relationship becomes dynamic. The power begins to shift, flow, and get shared. In business, grasping the importance of projecting power, assuming and reacting to status, and then exploring the relationship, is incredible collaboration and leads to deep, dynamic engagement. And that’s no riddle!Thanks for this piece!

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