Power: how do you know your drunk on power?

There’s an old saying: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s attributed to Lord Acton, a nineteenth century historian and moralist.

Power is a word that invokes a range of images and ideas. Some people see it as bad, while other people see it as magnetic and empowering.

light-fizzled-outI prefer an optimistic approach and view power, used in the right way, as a force for good – not evil.

Power of this nature is designed to help those around us. It provides the courage to take action when it’s needed. It comes from knowing oneself and being comfortable to share power, rather than focus on having power over others.

Dacher Keltner in his book, The Power Paradox, writes that power is something we acquire by improving the lives of other people in our social network. In this way, power is granted to us by others.

However, he notes that often our very experience of power destroys the skills that gave us the power in the first place.

His research has found that people who feel powerful are more likely to act impulsively. For example having affairs, driving aggressively, communicating in rude and disrespectful ways or lying. And by behaving in this way we actually lose power.

So what are the warning signs that we may be drunk on power?

It can be when we:

  • Think our rights and needs outweigh those of others
  • Are striving for outcomes that are all about our needs
  • Stop listening to other people
  • Think we are the smartest person in the room
  • Ignore feedback

In political and diplomatic circles, the concept of a ‘balance of power’ is used and it proposes that outcomes are enhanced when no single nation is so powerful they are able to dominate world affairs.

This concept accepts the fact that power in the hands of the few isn’t healthy. It equally applies in the working environment. To have a healthy, thriving work environment you want a balance of power. This is a culture where power is shared and distributed, and no one leader dominates over others.

To create such a culture, you need to:

  • Not surround yourself with sycophants
  • Be open to challenge and constructive debate
  • Create open and transparent decision making processes, which enable people to be involved
  • Adopt a growth mindset and recognise that you don’t have all the ideas
  • Own your mistakes – seeking feedback and making amends
  • Seek your learning edge and be naturally curious about what is really going on around you

Abraham Lincoln said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”. (Of course, I’m sure if he was writing that today he’d use gender neutral language).

The question to ponder is what does our use of power say about our character?

Change happens. Make it work for you.


Michelle Gibbings is a change and leadership expert and founder of Change Meridian.  Michelle works with global leaders and teams to help them accelerate progress. She is the Author of ‘Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work’.  For more information: www.michellegibbings.com or contact michelle@michellegibbings.com.