Power – Paradox or Predicament?

By Donald Officer

Outside of falling in love, there may be no more widely considered pattern to social life than the rise to power, the abuse of power, and the subsequent fall from power.                                                                 

Dacher Keltner  

Dacher Keltner, author of The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, is a highly respected professor of psychology and a serious student of the evolutionary origins of human emotion. In his 2016 work, Keltner melds his approach as a researcher and faculty director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center with widely shared observations of behaviour patterns among primates. His own inclination has been to identify and study the consistent employment of positive gestures among populations where interpersonal interaction is conspicuous. That focus has been the backbone of his work for twenty years. Here is what he had to say about contagious laughter in Born to be Good in 2009: “Laughter may just be the first step to nirvana. When people laugh, they are enjoying a vacation from the conflicts of social living.”

Oddly, from a twenty-first Century perspective, the cultivation and practice of interpersonal power has only recently become something scholars have shown deep curiosity about. More precisely, power was not regarded as mainly a psychological concern back in the day. Perhaps this reluctance had something to do with the delicate subject of human behavioral evolution.

Moreover, during the twentieth century power relations were regarded as capital P “Political” way more than anything else. World wars and super powers nose to nose will alter anyone’s focus. That larger power predicament has obviously not disappeared, but other factors, including the economic and familial, interest us more than they used to. Primatology, along with genetics and neuroscience have come of age. Our views on evolution matured. We found a vocabulary to unpack animal behaviour in microcosm. Surely some of their antics apply to us.

Keltner was particularly taken by what pioneer animal behaviorist Frans de Waal observed over six revealing months in the chimpanzee enclosure at the Arnhem, Netherlands Zoo. A coup, albeit a remarkably bloodless one, took shape before his eyes as the dominant male was forced to accede influence, authority and ultimately all significant manifestations of power to a younger male. How did this happen? Yeroen, the older dominant male, was at the peak of his competencies, confidence and connectedness.

Alas for the boss chimp, his usurper Luit, had something going for him that Yeroen had lost sight of. Luit was totally focussed on supporting the greater good of the troop. He contributed to group social resources, groomed his comrades, helped keep the peace generally earning peer esteem and eventually deference. De Waal’s conclusion? Your power as a member of primate society has much to do with your contribution to everyone’s welfare.

Granted, other factors bear upon who becomes or stays powerful. Power has many dimensions and expressions. Subtle influences, knowledge, awareness, talent, experience, novelty (and yes, luck too), all have parts to play in the great game. Human society seems more multifaceted than that of chimpanzees. However, get lost in either chimp or human social games, overlooking the way your community sees your role, and you might as well cash in your chips.

Unfortunately, Keltner explains, those seeking power often get swept up in playing their own power game. Like the overconfident Yeroen, they don’t see their downfall coming. Expecting deference from the less powerful is habit forming if not downright intoxicating. From the follower’s perspective, there are benefits in becoming a sycophant. Likewise, it is imprudent to slight the mighty as long as they remain on top.

How do we avoid a distorted view of our own power, if those around us have more to gain by going along with our presumptions than in speaking, however awkwardly, their truth to that power? This is where sincere gratitude towards those whose honest cooperation allows leaders to properly assume their authority – that is, those coworkers who commit themselves to support their leadership – becomes most relevant.

Keltner lists five tendencies with high “greater good” potential that could save us from a fateful fall from grace. Recognizing these in itself makes a significant contribution to understanding the grateful leadership paradigm. To remain successful leaders, he notes, we need to cultivate these tendencies. Thanks to Dacher Keltner, we have a reasonable notion of what represents the long view of grateful leadership. He describes these tendencies as follows: Enthusiasm – Reaching out to others; Kindness – Cooperating, sharing, giving; Focus – concentrating on shared goals, rules; Calmness – Instilling calm, perspective; Openness – being open to others’ ideas and feelings.

One ongoing challenge for all of us who believe in the value of gratitude, is the importance of acknowledgment in healthy organizations. Specifically, how do we make an authentic, durable habit of it? Recognition for your contribution to the group is important, but recognition is not authentic acknowledgment. One of the signs power may be transforming into something compelled rather than freely given, is formal substitution of recognition for acknowledgement.

As his book’s full title spells out, through his research, Dacher Keltner believes he has identified the paradox of power as a power rule. Drawing from both inter and intra species evidence, he concludes that attending to others is mostly how we earn power. What happens next is not surprising, although the frequency of occurrence the author predicts might raise an eyebrow.

Something about becoming powerful leads the powerful to believe they are now entitled to it. If this opinion is not reinforced, many begin to abuse their authority or at minimum take their entitlement to its privileges for granted. Beyond the five positive tendencies, how else might leaders find their way back to a state of grace? Be aware of your sense of power remembering its purpose is not the sensation, but positive use of it. Deliberately stay humble – you will keep your power longer. Remain focussed on others. Stay respectful, not seeking respect in return.

There is another power lesson Keltner recalls from his own childhood. It is one easily missed or forgotten in a busy life, but that becomes shameful when ignored. Consider the high cost of imposed powerlessness that surrounds us on all sides. People with no power, nor opportunities to effectively gain nor retrieve it are constantly overlooked, often abused deliberately, shockingly and systematically. Whatever way such travesties transpire, no community and certainly not its most privileged members can justify it. If you can find an ounce of gratitude in your soul for your advantages, what will you do about it? 


What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning, Inc. Senior Vice President, Judith Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment will help you see the possibilities.