I recently attended a course on personal power taught by Drs. Bob and Judith Wright at the Wright Graduate University for the Realization of Human Potential. They defined power as the capacity to get work done and to influence others – closely following the conventional dictionary definition[i]. Power is about personal effectiveness and influence – two qualities that we attempt to cultivate in our own lives and the lives of our students.
They then proposed a radically unconventional interpretation of power as an essential property of our being. “I am power,” they stated, “insofar as I choose to live authentically and to realize the unique potential that I represent.”
This was a different notion of power than I – and I suspect many others—first think of when we think about power. We are bombarded with power images and narratives that emphasize dominance over others and using position, money, and connections to win at all costs. Political power smacks of intrigue, game playing, and denigrating others in order to advance partisan causes. It is anything but being genuine and authentic. And if political power is about actualizing potential, it seems to be much more about realizing supremacy over others than becoming our best selves.
Given that context, I was eager to hear a more redemptive power narrative and how we can change the way we think about power in all areas of our life – from the personal to the political.
So, what does it mean in practical terms to define power as a capacity to live authentically and to realize the unique potential that we each represent?
Let’s start with this notion of living authentically. I understand this to mean being genuine, expressing directly what we feel and think, and taking clear stands about what we value and are committed to. It means accentuating the positive in our fights with one another – focusing on what we are for rather than who we are against.[ii] It’s about orienting to higher purpose and our vision of what is possible, rather than orienting to fear and defending against real or imagined threats. It’s about orienting to common purpose and shared goals, rather than a divisive tribal mentality of us-vs-them.
Defining power in terms of authenticity also means consciously creating the selves and identities toward which we aspire. This includes overcoming our self-limiting beliefs and behaviors that function as power blockers. This new vision of power is about a growth mindset[iii] of moving toward emerging possibilities and potentials rather than a fixed mindset of consolidating patterns of dominance and submission.
This notion of authenticity as a process of becoming is an important dimension of personal power. Being authentic is not a static state that one achieves (or not) at some point in life. It is a process of realizing a unique potential that we each represent. We might call this our destiny or purpose – that which we are put on this earth to realize. It is the answer to the question: why am I here? It is an answer we discover through the choices and commitments we make.
The second point about power is that is a capacity that exists within each of us to realize the unique potential that each of us represents. Aristotle was the first Western philosopher to systematically describe an inner dynamism in nature whereby each living being seeks to realize its distinctive potential. [iv] The acorn has within itself the capacity to become the oak. Each human embryo has the inherent capacity to become a unique person. This inner potential energy is the power that exists in nature to realize the potential of being.
Our power as human beings is this potential energy to become who we uniquely are. This includes achieving what we yearn for, connecting with those we love and care about, and exercising our influence to make a positive difference in the world. We are power, insofar as we dedicate ourselves to realizing our inner potential to be our best selves and to make a distinctive contribution to the lives of others and the world.
Power in this sense is more than the expression of my unique potential considered in isolation from the groups and communities in which I participate. It is also about seeing myself as part of a larger whole and actualizing the emerging possibilities of that larger community or system.
In our leadership curriculum at Wright we refer to the power of a unified field that allows a group to actualize potentials that no single individual or sub-group could do on its own. It’s about seeing our sense of connectedness and realizing that when each of us is authentically engaged with one another in realizing our unique potentials, we at the same time enable the group to actualize its inherent emergent possibilities. This is the power of synergy that exists in a unified field of individuals with a common purpose.
What’s needed today in our personal lives and our politics is to operate from this new notion of power. We need to expect our leaders and ourselves to live lives of authenticity and integrity and to orient to a common purpose in our engagement with one another. In this way, we tap the power of our communities, political governance, organizations, and personal relationships to do the hard work and exercise the influence that’s needed to create the world we truly want. We need a new vision of power that uplifts humanity rather than the prevalent narrative of dominance and suppression.
[ii] Wright, Judith & Bob Wright, The Heart of the Fight: A Couples Guide to 15 Common Fights, What they Really Mean & How They Can Bring You Closer.Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2016. See chapter 5, The Rules of Engagement.
[iii] Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. How We Can Learn to Fulfill our Potential. New York, Ballantine Books, 2016.
[iv] See this discussion of Aristotle’s definitions of power, potentiality, and actuality: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potentiality_and_actuality