Strategy & Leadership

The role of the power factor

March 2, 2017

Power is a mysterious phenomenon. Many people don't want to have too much to do with it, or they are even afraid of it. If power is exerted over you, you can become its victim. But if you exercise power, there is a chance that you will misuse it. Neither are attractive perspectives. And yet many people long for power and would love to obtain it for countless reasons. 

Power has neither color nor odor. Although it manifests itself in many ways, you cannot touch it. And at the same time, the power factor always plays a part in situations where people interact with each other, whether we are conscious of it or not. 

Power is the capacity to decide. With power, it can be decided who may join in the game and who must sit in reserve, who will be promoted and who will be dismissed. Whoever has power, can walk in wherever he likes, while he himself can keep the door shut. Those with power can define the course and so influence lives. 

Experience

At the same time, the source of power is not always easy to trace. For instance, in companies and institutions, much is defined by the organizational structure, but not everything. Besides similarities, there are also big differences in how power works at different organizations – from the village school to the multinational and from the ministry to the hospital. Leaders in one organization would appear to have more power than those in the same positions elsewhere. Some people are conferred a lot of power, while they don't experience it that way themselves. 

When power is exerted with integrity, it helps companies and institutes to become safer, more effective, more innovative and more transparent. Power then serves the organization, its employees, the customers and the community. If power is merely used for personal interests, then it is corrupted. To a greater or a lesser degree, we all have to do with corrupted power. We think that our department should be spared in a reorganization, and of course we have good arguments to support this. However, had we worked in another department, then we would have thought that that one should be left alone. In other words: organizational interests and personal interests are often at odds. But whoever does not aim for personal interests, will barely succeed in obtaining a top position, let alone in retaining it. 

Unavoidable

That is one of the characteristics and at the same time dilemmas of power: without personal interests no power retention. Management cannot be done from a position of weakness and results will be lacking. And where power can be acquired, a power struggle is unavoidable. Most of the time spent by those in the top level of organizations is occupied with maintaining or increasing their power. If you don't do that, you soon won’t count. The bigger and more powerful the organization, the more power is concentrated at the top, and the greater the power struggle usually is. 

Power is a controversial subject. In the Dutch language, the word has a more negative connotation and is associated with abuse of power. No one will want to say of himself: 'I am the manager of a large organization and that means that I have a lot of power.' We would be more likely to hear statements like: 'I am the manager of a large organization and work together with my colleague managers and employees on proper investments for challenges that the future has to offer us.' 

That negative connotation is not entirely accidental. In the twentieth century, but even before that too, Europe had suffered heavily under extreme forms of power abuse. That experience has left deep scars in the collective psyche. Moreover, the Dutch culture is typically characterized as being egalitarian. Our polder model is a good example of that. It is not appreciated if differences between people become too great or expressions of power are too explicit; if you are in a position of power, you would be advised to use it sparingly. 

Constant threat

A good historical explanation for this is given by the historian Geert Mak. In his book De eeuw van mijn vader (My Father’s Century), he explains that the densely populated, low-lying Holland was constantly threatened by flooding and demanded consensus and collaboration in order to keep control over the water. The water boards, in which all layers of the population work together, belong to the oldest still functioning democratic structures of Europe. 

That does not necessarily mean that there is less power concentrated at the top in the Netherlands, but it is less visible to the naked eye and more evenly distributed over a small group of people with power: an oligarchy. In English, the word “power” is linguistically simpler. The word power means both power and strength, and you may say of yourself that you are powerful or that you empower others. In Dutch the meanings of the words 'power' and 'strength' differ too much to use them as synonyms.

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