How and when does power become abusive? I’ve explored this topic here frequently, and while I don’t think power is inherently abusive or corrupting, without education and training on how to use it, abuse of power does and will happen. Hence the title of this blog.
One thing often overlooked in leadership training (which I believe should focus more on power and how to use it well) is that we do not enter positions of power as blank slates, but come into positions of power with our personal story of power. We grew up in a context of power relations, and how we enact the role of the leader is influenced by a social identity forged in part by power relations. Preparing for a position of power should start with an inventory of what one has already experienced about power.
As a coach and trainer, one thing I constantly see is that we seldom outgrow the power identity we grew up with. Not only that, our earliest identity of power asserts itself under threat or stress. Growing up smaller than the other kids, and being picked on in school, growing up poor or disadvantaged, following an older brother or sister who did better in school, or being the only Jew in the town, all of these experiences are like unresolved wounds or complexes that stay with us, and influence our self-esteem, relations with others, and more generally, how we perform in our roles. We lead with and from our wounds.
And wounding can come from both a deficit and an excess of power, and the complicated mix of both. There is no doubt, as research confirms, low status is wounding. Lack of access to resources, systemic oppression, low self-esteem, internalized lowered expectations and stereotyping influences health, opportunity, success, well-being, happiness, etc. But we are also wounded psychologically by exclusivity, unearned privilege, entitlement, and the “price of the ticket,” fitting into an elite club whose membership is the cost of our authenticity.
But our early experiences with power can also be affirming and enabling. We are empowered through the connection with our lineage, a knowledge of ancestors, connection with the community or with a spiritual belief. We can also transform our earliest suffering into self-esteem and empowerment by awareness of having endured or survived hardship.
Yet unless we develop awareness of these initial experiences, and our unresolved wounds, the temptation to use the power of the role to soothe our pain is too great. Like an addict using a substance to flee a miserable state of mind, power becomes an artificial boost, a ‘substance’ to soothe and alleviate an internal sense of low status. But this isn’t an immutable fate. It can be worked on with focus and self-awareness. I’m looking forward to exploring this and more on the intersection of the person and the role in the Leadership Lab in a couple of weeks.