Ecological use of power

How power works

Power is the ability to impose one's own will on others. This condition must be due to the covetousness of humans, as ever since the dawn of civilization it has been the great battle keeping us endlessly at odds with one another.

Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. After seeing countless examples, that is what many people would say about power. For quite some time now, there has been a negative connotation to the word "power" and everything related to exercising it.

It would appear that exercising power is somehow inherently evil. However, as with almost every other aspect of management, whether exercising power is considered evil or not depends largely on two aspects: how and why.

Executives need power to thrive in their profession; for implementing the strategy. The big question is how to exercise it in a way that is not harmful for them or for the people on whom it is exercised. We must discover the hows and whys behind the functional and dysfunctional use of power. That is what we call the ecological use of power.

The functionality of power is determined not only by its effectiveness, but also the positive impact on the person who exercises it and the people on which it is exercised. We all have a bright side and a dark side to our personality. The functional exercise of power brings out the bright side. The dysfunctional exercise of power brings out the dark side. In oneself and those subjected to the use of power.

To some degree, nothing we do, think or feel is free, and the exercise of power, with its structural intensity, is even less so. We are all sculptors of our brains. We chisel our brains with ideas, intentions and desires that drive us. And with the decisions we make.

New organizational structures: The need to reinvent power

Companies have an ever growing need for good lateral coordination to break down the functional silos that throttle innovation, such as proper management of the customer experience. For this reason, in the future we see fewer hierarchical and control structures and more structures of project-based teamwork.

The paradox is that in less hierarchical and more "democratic" organizations, the exercise of power, possibly of another kind, takes on even greater importance. The reason is obvious: there is no brilliant execution without power. The flexibilization of structures causes a sort of crisis in the classical notion of power, and the need to discover other forms of exercising power that could well lead us to the ambition of a functional use of power.

Power, in order to be functional, simultaneously requires a why and how of added value. In terms of the why, the added value has to do with the quality of the intentions. Intentions of low added value are those that look for short-term personal gain (i.e., emotional "fast-food": wealth, ego, sex, limelight, etc.) with a negative impact on personal integrity and on the social realm of the decision-maker.

The second aspect determining the functionality of power is the how. The end (albeit noble) does not justify the means. The efficiency of the lever of power cannot take priority over its ethical quality.

Hence, power corrupts when it is driven by an intention of low added value and when the levers used are not compatible with actual personal and social progress. By contrast, power is a means of personal and social progress when the intentions and levers used are consistent with that end.

The levers of power

The classic levers of power are described below. Not all have the same ethical quality and they can be used by people with intentions of low added value (what's mine, immediate and material) and by those with intentions of high added value (what's ours, long term and conceptual).

Therefore, if motivated by the wrong intentions, the use of any of these tools can corrupt. The opposite is also true. Good intentions and good levers generate the virtuous circle of credibility; bad intentions and bad levers start vicious circles that degenerate the actors and their observers.

The levers of power consist of the following:

  • Monopolizing resources that are valuable to the people on which power is exercised. Power is held by those who control scarce resources such as money, emails or compromising photos, equipment, space, food, medicine, information or contacts with influential people.

Interestingly, while it is true that "hoarding" scarce resources increases power, the same thing could be achieved with the opposite behavior. For example, on the Internet, much more power comes from sharing valuable material than holding onto it. History is full of individuals who have made their intelligent generosity a source of personal power.

  • Controlling the mechanisms for rewards and punishments. Human behavior is largely the product of the system of rewards and punishments in which we live. Whoever controls the system of rewards and punishments has tremendous power over people.

Life has endless examples of executives who have made the use of this leverage a source of degeneration (e.g., with arbitrary use of rewards and punishments; or overusing one, rewards or punishments, at the expense of good symmetry between the two) or institutional progress (promoting merit, effort and personal welfare, etc.)

  • Advancing on multiple fronts. The probability of getting what we want increases if we carry out numerous actions in parallel for the same purpose. If one action is blocked, the rest may stay on course without being affected too much.
  • Striking first and with acumen. Although figuratively speaking, someone gains power when they carry out an action that the other party had not foreseen and when it is done in an area that puts the other party at a disadvantage.
  • Co-opting antagonists. If opponents can be won over, resistance to personal plans diminishes, and as a result power is gained. A healthy way to do this is to increase the areas where there is alignment or persuade the opposing party that they can achieve their goals better by co-opting. The most common, most reprehensible way is buying willpower with money or arbitrary privileges.
  • Removing rivals. The mafia, dictators and certain others do it physically. The message for the indifferent is very clear. Give in or risk the same fate. 

There are less reprehensible ways to get rid of adversaries that are common in enterprises. One of these is to ask them to leave the company with enough money to silence their complaints; another is to find them another attractive role that makes it possible to get that person out of the way. The more elegant way might be to not make it a personal issue, but rather a matter of alignment with the culture and strategy.

  • Not drawing unnecessary fire. Discretion allows a person to move about quietly and ultimately create less resistance. Being stealthful and staying in the shadows allows one to gain ground without the opponents noticing. Similarly, not opening up secondary fronts is part of the same lever of power.
  • Using the personal touch. The medium is the message. People with charisma, appeal and persuasion achieve their objectives more easily.
  • Willpower.  Persistence is like water eroding a rock. It wears down the toughest, most resistant opposition.
  • Building relationships with people who are also powerful. Support networks and professional networks help to achieve personal goals and therefore are a source of power.
  • Make the vision compelling.  If personal goals are framed in a broader, more attractive context, it will be easier for others to support it.
  • Self-control. People with power tend to believe they are above good and evil and give free rein to their whims and eccentricities. These excesses are often precisely the cause of their eventual loss of power. Therefore self-control, setting limits and moderation can make power more solid and sustainable.

Managing power is an inherent part of carrying out executive duties. Those who know how to build a solid power base are able to complete their projects more efficiently. The maxim that power corrupts is not a matter of whys and hows. We hope we have given enough pointers to make the use of the power a factor that is respectful with the ecology of personal and social progress.



PFEFFER, Jeffrey. “Power Play.” HBR Publishing.