The widespread, changing pursuit of power is, however, often accompanied by conflict, confusion, and doubt, largely because it is so often a forbidden subject and is usually pursued alone and in silence.
A few years ago when I was a consultant to a major company, I experienced an exhilarating but painful lesson in the ways of power that helps clarify this problem. I had been asked to advise their managers about the New Management, and they were intrigued to see that a more effective type of corporation could be developed using these principles. I was then asked to help implement this concept in their operations.
Well, you can imagine that I was flying high at the prospect of seeing my ideas brought to life. It made me realize the attraction-no, the addiction, that grips those who taste great power. Using one’s abilities to sway the opinion of others is a heady, delicious feeling. In contrast to the struggle of daily life, power conveys a sense of mastery over our environment. As the political TV talk show host John McLaughlin put it, “Power is an experience as intense as sex.
But the story gets better. The company asked me to conduct a project that required gaining the support of twenty-five other big corporations. When the project was completed, I organized a meeting of all the managers to discuss the results. At the meeting, I strode to the podium savoring the thrill of accomplishment, made some brief remarks, and noted that this project had succeeded because they had all worked together cooperatively.
Unfortunately, I made the mistake of taking my observations too far by saying that they should develop a similar cooperative spirit with their employees, customers, and other stakeholders. Suddenly, looking out at all those faces, I felt waves of resentment flowing toward me. They rightly felt that I was misusing my role to lecture them. When the full force of their anger hit, I was plunged into the nightmare that haunts speakers, a panic attack. In front of all those important people who I had wanted to impress, I just stood there, wordless, unable to find a way out of my terror. It was only a few seconds really, but it seemed like an endless ordeal.
I describe both the highs and the lows of this experience, even though they are both embarrassing in different ways, to illustrate how deeply we often experience the use of power. Think of a time when you handled a tough interpersonal situation well and felt a glowing sense of achievement or when you mishandled a situation and felt the power drain from you. Such deep feelings are common because jousting in the arena of power is a fact of life, and today the game is played at a psychic level as we test our beliefs, knowledge, and will against one another. It would be great if we could all work together cooperatively, but that does not happen very often.
Entire libraries have been written on leadership traits, styles, and skills to clarify these murky matters. This “outer” view, focusing on the leader’s behavior, is useful, but it misses the inner reality from which power emanates. In the experience described above, my outer behavior and that of my audience makes no sense without understanding the inner forces at work: my pushy need to change these managers, their sense of resentment, my fearful reaction in the panic attack, and so on. Here’s how Robert Rabbin, head of a consulting firm that helps managers cultivate this type of inner understanding, describes it:
Learning about awareness teaches us that life is actually an “inside job.” Our experiences and abilities are an imprint of our awareness. The quality of our awareness determines the quality of our life and actions.