~ Article written by L. Michael Hall PhD ~
Like sex, money, and religion- power is both highly desired and greatly feared and even more, difficult to talk about. Yet we must. Power is everywhere in life, ever-present, and inescapable. But how can we have a decent conversation about it? That’s a problem most of us have. And that problem is amplified by the fact that power is highly misunderstood, shrouded in mystery, and challenging to stay calm about in a conversation. In spite of all of this, we need to learn how to have an open, respectful, and thoughtful conversation about it.
At the simplest level of power is capacity- “the ability to do.” That’s what the word means. Check any dictionary, power means “to do.” If you can do something, you have power. If you can read, you have the power to read. If you can speak, cook, drive a car, fix a computer- you have these powers. And if power is capacity, then your power can be small or great or somewhere in-between depending on the size of your capacity. Power can also grow and develop or it can weaken and diminish. It hardly ever stays the same. As a capacity, you could even measure it. After all, its expressions shows up in the real world of tangible things.

Individual Power

All of that speaks about power individually. It speaks about your assets and resources- these are aspects of power. As a capacity, power is a strength you have to do something and an energy you can expend in doing that thing. Further, it arises from your four innate powers- your ability to think, emote, speak, and act. These ways of responding gives you four dimensions of power- mental powers, emotional powers, linguistic powers, and behavioral powers. [I wrote an entire chapter on this in book, The Matrix Model.]

Social Power

Then there is your social powers. This refers to your with others- your capacities for influencing other people- influencing their thoughts, emotions, speech, and actions. Interpersonally you have the power to some degree and, surprisingly, it depends on how well you serve others. Dacher Keltner, in The Power Paradox (2016), says that “Power is actually about making a difference in the world.” And you and I do that by stirring others in our social network by improving the greater good of the groups of people that we relate to. We make a difference in the world by seek “the greaer good.” All of this actually speaks to the inherent ethics of power, well, true power and not the false abreactions of power “over” others. Power is inherently with others.
“Enduring power hinges on doing simple things that are good for others.”
(Keltner, p. 35)
“Power is the ability to stir others to collaborative action.” Hannah Arendt
Because power is part of every interaction due to our capacity to influence each other, power is a social dynamic and therefore you can find it in every group. Here’s another strange factor about this kind of power –social power- is not inside the individual. So where is it? It is in the interaction itself. It is across the social network. Instead of thinking that power is grabbed by a person and exercised over a group, Keltner says we should think of power as given or bestowed by the group on the person or persons who advances the greater good. Similar to how it is with persuasion and leadership- power is first earned by the person and then given by the group. That is, you earn power in the eyes and minds of others via enthusiasm, care, focus, openness, calmness, empathy, strength, kindness, and generosity. In turn a group rewards a person with esteem (reputation and status) and trust (position).

Political Power

The social power of interpersonal relations not only involves influence and control, not only reputation and status, it also leads to power structures-who is given a position to make decisions and to allocate resources. We call this “politics” whether it is in the power structure of a home or an international corporation.
When you bring up the subject of power, you are inviting a conversation about relationships between people and capacities. Do we select individuals to do things based on their capacities? That would be smart and practical. Or do we select people based on who they know, what strings they can pull, how much money or influence they have, etc.? That’s the dark side of “playing politics.” That’s how to create a dysfunctional group or organization.
Giving position, status, reputation, responsibility, etc. to a person without the capacity is a sure-fire way to create a sick organization.
Abraham Maslow once noted that we should give power to the persons who do not want it and do not need it. When a person wants it and worse, when a person needs it, that person is very likely to not handle it well. Then they are not focused exclusively on the greater good or serving people.
Given that, how wise was Jesus to say that the person who would be “greatest” among you should be the person who serves others the best. And, he who would be great, let him be the servant of all. Wise words from a long time ago.


Like the psychology of money and the psychology of food, people can want power for the wrong reasons. Psycho-eating drives people to be either obsese or suffer anerexia because of their semantically loading of food. Psycho-saving and psycho-spending also can suffer from trying to use money for things it cannot fulfill. The Beatles sang it: “Money can’t buy you love.” Psycho-powering is over-loading “power” and all of the expressions of power with meanings that it cannot fulfill. And that’s a conversation that we need to have with many people.
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