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by James Waldroop Ph.D.
and Timothy Butler Ph.D.

Directors of MBA Career Development at the Harvard Business School. Twenty years relevant experience. Business Psychologists, Psychotherapists, Executive Coaches to many Fortune 500 companies, helping individuals work to their highest level of potential.


Coming to Terms with Power

Your 3rd Essential Career Development Step



Power is the capacity to act. It is the strength or force you exert or are capable of exerting; it is your ability to perform effectively; it is your official capacity to exercise control - to use the authority you are granted.

Power is a fact of business life. Accept it. Use it. Equitably. Comfortably. Effectively.

When You Can't Handle The 'Shout',
You Have a Problem.

OVERTAKE® says: We deliberately - and pejoratively - use the term 'Shout' above to describe power. We intend to evoke an image of the traditional command-and-control structure - the autocracy. Better managers have now moved toward the other end of the management spectrum, toward democracy. Business can not be fully democratic but the best managers today are more persuasive than directive.

Problems arise because people have deeply ambivalent feelings about power. Some consider it inherently unfair that one person should command another to do something. Others are obsessed with power - the unprofessional, even abusive, tyrants.

Power can both attract and repel us at the same time. Some chase the attraction; far more feel the repulsion. Become keenly aware of your feelings about power, and your characteristic reactions to it - both conscious and unconscious.

To understand your feelings about power think about powerful and powerless people, about those who have more power than you do at work, about how your colleagues think about you with regard to power, about the strength of your attraction to, and discomfort with, power. Are you more drawn to power or away from it? Paint a clear and nuanced self-portrait. Know yourself.


We call this psytech tool 'The Power User.'

Problems with power are of two kinds: fear of power; obsession with power.

FEAR OF POWER: Waldroop and Butler give us three origins of the fear of power:

  1. Fear of the Power of Others: Evolutionarily, instinctually, rationally, we fear power greater than our own.
  2. Fear of Our Own Power: Unconsciously we fear our own potential to abuse power, our capacity for destructiveness, our 'shadow' - the darker aspect of ourselves identified by Carl Jung (1875-1961), the Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology.
    Oedipus Complex: Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis, identified one source of the 'shadow' for some people as the Oedipus Complex. This is a carryover from childhood, when, like everyone else, they experienced a desire to depose their fathers or mothers and take over his or her role in the family.
    Consequently they experience guilt for wanting to get rid of their parent and fear that their parent, sensing their desires, will retaliate. Oedipals fear having and using power.
  3. Culture: Culturally, many women have been raised to view power as unfeminine.

Fear of power often propels the idealist ('Seeing the World in Black and White'), and Spock ('Emotionally Tone-Deaf'),  and the pessimist ('When Fear is in the Driver's Seat').

Solution: If you fear power - that of others or your own - use the above to understand the origins of such fears. When you understand you can overcome your own fear.

OBSESSION WITH POWER: Waldroop and Butler give us five reasons why people become 'power-mad':

  1. Ethos. It's the American way: Americans celebrate the power of the individual - and ignore and even disparage the weak. So many believe that the 'alpha' male or female - first in order of importance - rules OK and that the USA is one big power theme park.
    This specific ethos - this disposition, character, fundamental value set - is peculiar to America.

    OVERTAKE® says: Is this ethos, this element of the concepts and beliefs that power American life and culture, in reality a residual of the 19th century doctrine of manifest destiny, so named by John L. O'Sullivan in 1845, by which so many American settlers were indoctrinated to believe that it was their right to have, and duty to take, any land they wanted - a shocking power? Is it a remnant of the ancient, repugnant Anglo-Saxon sophistry?

  2. No Love Here: Carl Jung (1875-1961), the Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology, says: 'Where love reigns, there is no will to power; and where the will to power is paramount, love is lacking.'
    Many who are obsessed with power come from childhoods where love was scarce or never demonstrated. It's as if they substitute power for love because power is more easily acquired and controlled.
  3. Desire for Immortality: As in: 'My company (bearing my good name) will live on forever.'
  4. Inferiority Complex: Alfred Adler (1870-1937), the Austrian psychiatrist, theorized that neurotic behavior is an overcompensation for feelings of inferiority, born from infantile helplessness. Those with an inferiority complex strive to acquire power to erase those feelings of powerlessness. Their motto:  'I have and use power, therefore I exist. I am somebody - now.'
  5. Tyrant: S/he wants power because s/he wants ruthlessly to use and abuse it, to berate, to undermine, to humiliate, to exhibit grossly inappropriate behavior. The psychology of such tyrants is complex, maybe unfathomable. Their prognosis is poor. S/he needs professional counseling or coaching.

Obsession with power often propels the bulldozer ('Running Roughshod Over The Opposition'), and the slavedriver hero ('Doing Too Much, Pushing Too Hard').

Solution: If you are obsessed with power use the above to understand the origins of such obsessions. When you understand you can overcome your own obsession.


For maximum success you must become comfortable having and using power.

Get The Right Amount of Power. No More, No Less: To successfully get and use power first know how much you need. Identify your goal. Ask for the resources and authority you need to achieve it, no more, no less. Then use them. Achieve your goal. Subsequently you will get more resources and authority because you have been seen to use your power previously to good effect. Use power well, you will get more.

Using it. The Paradox of Power: No use of power, no power - that's the paradox. Having power does not necessarily mean you are more powerful. If you are not prepared to use your power, you are not powerful. Those who are afraid to fail are paralyzed into powerlessness. So if you'll not use it , you'll lose it. For sure. If you'll not use your power, of what use are you? Those who are not afraid to fail have to risk losing it too. So even when you do use it, you may lose it. If you screw up.

But when you can get the power you need and use it equitably, comfortably and effectively to achieve the results your company needs, then you and your group become even higher performance people.

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