• Chelsea Rustrum

What is Power?

Updated: Feb 21

I’ve never really liked the word power, except for maybe when I was a teenager and felt powerless to my circumstance. My parents split for the 4th time, though this time it was to be for good. I relished knowing that I had an internet company and made great money. I knew that gave me power to choose. And to this day, I remember being 16 and sitting in the back of a business class at my local community college. The teacher asked the class who wanted to be a CEO and I proudly raised my hand.

That girl still exists in me, though, she’s fundamentally changed. I don’t care about being a CEO; I care about having a positive impact and doing what I love, with people that I love. I care about enjoying life.

But that has me questioning the role of the ego and that young girl in me who knows just how powerful she is. My question in all of this is, is power safe? What is the difference between strength and power? And how can we meld the lessons of vulnerability, truly letting people in, and power? My gut reaction is that they are opposed.

Definition from Merriam-Webster: Power: the ability to control people or things.

I struggled to find what I was looking for on the subject of power, but what I did appreciate is a new and evolving sense of what power is and means:

“True power requires modesty and empathy, not force and coercion, argues Dacher Keltner.

As seductive as these notions are, they are dead wrong. Instead, a new science of power has revealed that power is wielded most effectively when it’s used responsibly by people who are attuned to, and engaged with the needs and interests of others. Years of research suggests that empathy and social intelligence are vastly more important to acquiring and exercising power than are force, deception, or terror.

This research debunks longstanding myths about what constitutes true power, how people obtain it, and how they should use it. But studies also show that once people assume positions of power, they’re likely to act more selfishly, impulsively, and aggressively, and they have a harder time seeing the world from other people’s points of view. This presents us with the paradox of power:

The skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power.

In psychological science, power is defined as one’s capacity to alter another person’s condition or state of mind by providing or withholding resources—such as food, money, knowledge, and affection—or administering punishments, such as physical harm, job termination, or social ostracism. This definition de-emphasizes how a person actually acts, and instead stresses the individual’s capacity to affect others. Perhaps most importantly, this definition applies across relationships, contexts, and cultures.”

How does this relate to money?

Money gives ones capacity to alter the condition of others. 

And interestingly, at every point in the chain of richest to poorest, empathy for another’s condition wanes as wealth increases. What does this tell us? Perhaps that just as a typical San Franciscan has lost their empathy for homeless people stumbling around the city, defecating publicly and living in tents, Financial District types can’t quite understand how someone would be “stuck” in poverty. “Just choose differently,” they might rationalize.

Money is supposed to be an intermediary of value, not an instrument of control, but that’s what it’s become. Along with money, comes this odd responsibility we like to call, power. And if power is not wielded in a mindfully, the person who holds that power will carry around buckets of guilt – often disguised by outward confidence and social influence.

What does a world where power isn’t important look like? My heart knows there’s a place like this, but my mind can’t fathom such a reality. Do we really need to control people or things? Is there another form of leadership and of power that invites participation, convergence, and sharing of resources?

I want to live in a world where we can redefine money and power for the new story, for the new economy. And while I’m struggling to understand the gravity of the questions I’m grappling with here, I sense that I’m not alone. I sense that many of us have this internal conflict about wanting to sit in the seat of personal strength whilst embodying the idea of oneness, of interdependence.

How do we build systems that allow us to share power in a way that we’re all stronger, as individuals, and as a collective? I don’t have all of the answers, but I do know that we’re moving into a new age that extends far beyond the realm of the sharing economy or $100 billion dollar valuations. The new story is still emergent, like an organism finding shape and form, sensing the way forward instead, encoded with the intuition for the next big change.

How do you or your organization define and harness power?

Resources: Are power seekers good or evil? Inc. Magazine The power paradox UC Berkeley

Chelsea Rustrum is a sharing economy expert, speaker, and facilitator.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy Chelsea’s book, It’s a Shareable Life, a practical guide to the sharing economy or the Sharers Talks educational series. Chelsea is also available for leadership trainings and corporate talks on value, power, and the emergence of the collaborative economy and how business is being disrupted and changed forever by the rebirth of peer-to-peer culture. If you’re interested, please get in touch.

You can also connect with Chelsea on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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