It seems almost counter-productive to say that if you want to expand your power in any given situation, you need to give it away. But this doesn’t change that it is true.

The reason this works is pretty simple once you get into the details. In order to gain power, you must gain trust and influence. You do this by generating goodwill with others through helping them grow and advance their interests. In taking these steps, you can inspire a positive reaction from the people who you have helped. Many of whom will in turn want to help you in return, expanding your social influence and thus your power. Of course the principle of reciprocity is not the only reason to help others, but it is an added benefit for your kindness, collaboration, and empowerment.

“The power paradox is this: We gain power and the capacity for influence through social practices that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, open mindedness, fairness, and generosity. And yet, once we gain power, success, or wealth, those very practices vanish, leaving us vulnerable to impulsive, self-serving actions and empathy deficits that set in motion our fall.”

As you build a reputation for helping others, your social currency grows. People will want to work with you and work for you because they know that you will help them achieve their goals and build them up. Great leaders understand this principle, but what happens after they have acquired the power and influence is where the real difficulty lies. That is, to keep the power they’ve worked so hard to cultivate, they must maintain a commitment to giving your power away. Doing so means continuing to take part in the same behaviors that helped you gain the power in the first place. If this sounds like a paradox, that’s because it is. This is what Dachel Keltner, professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley calls the power paradox.

Keltner writes, “The power paradox is this: We gain power and the capacity for influence through social practices that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, open mindedness, fairness, and generosity. And yet, once we gain power, success, or wealth, those very practices vanish, leaving us vulnerable to impulsive, self-serving actions and empathy deficits that set in motion our fall.”

What leads to demise of leaders and the erasure of their power and influence is not others siphoning off their power. It is instead the result of an inability to empower those around the leader to contribute and lead, to take criticism not as an insult but as a chance to improve and grow, and yes, to give one’s power away.

As the saying goes, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For this reason we must remember that the goal is not absolute power.

Often once we acquire power, everything and everyone seems like a threat to it. People who were once great colleagues and friends can seem like your competition. Behaviors like critical reasoning and constructive criticism that were once rewarded now run the risk of being seen as threatening, and may be condemned. There are, unfortunately, few lengths that some leaders will not go if they feel their power is in jeopardy.

As the saying goes, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For this reason we must remember that the goal is not absolute power. Another notable phrase goes, “no one is an island.” If you consolidate your power and isolate yourself from the others who helped you gain it, you’ll find that perhaps you will be an island. That is to say, you’ll have isolated yourself leaving you floating alone, commanding no one but yourself.

The only sure-fire way to expand your power is to give it away.


Thank you for reading.