Full text of author Ron Carucci’s talk: How To Be More Powerful Than Powerless at TEDxSnoIsleLibraries conference. In this talk, he explores this mysterious force of human nature and answers the questions: Where does power come from? Who gets to have it? How do we relate to it or misuse it?
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: How to be more powerful than powerless by Ron Carucci
Ron Carucci – Leadership researcher and author
It’s one of the most mysterious social forces in all of human existence – the exertion of our will on others.
For some, just hearing the word causes anxiety. It pits our basic sense of human kindness against the seduction of self-interest. It defines and reveals how we participate in relationships.
And for some, that conditioning starts in the earliest part of our social development.
Well, playground-bullying teaches us the painful consequences of power over others. Whether we’re the bully or the bullied!
Our parents give away our Halloween candy to late trick-or-treaters, and we quickly know how unfair resource allocation decisions can be.
A teacher falsely accuses us of cheating on a test and we feel how fickle the decisions of those in power can be, and the terrible injustice of having the real cheater go free without accountability.
The soccer coach puts in his own kid to kick the winning goal instead of the most talented player. And we feel the disempowering effects of favoritism and wonder just how rare is meritocracy!
Remember being asked the captain kickball at recess and pick teams, and later facing the anger of our friends we didn’t pick. And learning that sometimes having power means making really hard trade-offs.
These formative experiences shape our predispositions early in life and they accompany us right into adulthood. For some, these lessons teach us that power is bad and therefore not always to be trusted.
Futurist Alvin Toffler in his 1990 world-changing book, ‘Powershift’ said:
“Despite the bad order that clings to the very notion of power because of the misuses to which it has been put, power is neither good nor bad. It’s an inescapable aspect of every human relationship, to a greater degree that most of us imagine, we are all the products of power.”
25 years later, my firm commissioned a ten year longitudinal study of more than 2,700 people and confirmed that indeed the greatest misuse of power wasn’t for self-interest. No!
The most astounding finding in our study was despite the misconception that power is misused for personal or immoral gain was that people didn’t overindulge power nearly to the degree. And they simply chose not to use it at all.
A full 60% of the people in our study struggled with the notion that people ascribed more power to them than they actually believed they had themselves. Whether for fear of being judged or a fear of making a mistake. For some abandoning power just seemed easier and safer.
And the saddest waste of all that power is that all of the good it could do to change the world goes unrealized.
But what if you are more powerful than you are powerless?
What if there are more sources of power available to you than you know? And therefore more good you could do to change the world than you can possibly imagined.
Instead of fearing our power, what if we were haunted by the notion of reaching the end of our life only to discover that all of the good we could have done, we forfeited?
Our research revealed three primary sources of power that we each have available to us, that if we brought to bear with greater intention and purpose could influence the world in profoundly important ways.
- We each have power in our positions,
- We have power in our network of relationships, and
- We have power in our information.
Let’s see how they each could help us all change the world.
The Power in our positions
— the power to bring a sense of justice!
How many of you have had the word said to you, ‘It’s not fair!’
If you’re a teacher, or a leader, and goodness knows if you’re a parent, it is one of the most common laments we hear. And though life isn’t always fair, when injustice goes unaddressed, research shows that a sense of unfairness sets the stage for unethical behavior.
Because when people feel wronged, they feel entitled to take it. But as parents and leaders and teachers, we have the opportunity. In fact, I think we have the obligation to restore justice for those we influence, so they come to trust authority.