The Magnitude of Power and Its Relational Nature

I find it helpful to think of power as a battery.  Depending on how they are constructed, batteries contain any number of chemical cells, which are their sources of power.  Those cells convert chemical energy into potential electrical energy as measured in volts.  The higher the voltage of a battery, the more electromotive force it is capable of delivering; and the greater the force, the more work the battery is capable of doing.  A 100-volt battery can do much more work than a 1-volt battery, and a 1,000-volt battery can do much more work than a 100-volt battery.   This is a useful metaphor for how power works in people.  Like the cells in a battery, we have a number of sources of power.  The more power we have, the more work (leadership or influence) we are capable of doing.

Consider the power difference between an army private and his platoon sergeant, and the difference between the platoon sergeant and her company commander, and then extrapolate all the way to the commander-in-chief.  Each person in this chain of command has increasingly greater power and can exert increasingly more leadership and influence.  In effect, each person up the chain has a battery with greater voltage.  Or consider the difference between a struggling actor in New York, who is waiting tables to make a living while he hopes for that big break, and George Clooney, the Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning actor, producer, director, and screenwriter.  If Clooney wants to meet with other power brokers in Hollywood, he can be assured that they will take the meeting.  If he wants to make a film, he can galvanize interest, attract partners, and find investors.  His power comes from his stature and successes, knowledge of the business, and network of other influential people in Hollywood, as well as his magnetic personality and good looks—and others’ conviction that if he is involved in a movie projects it is likely to succeed.  In the domain of filmmaking, and compared to the struggling actor’s AA battery, George Clooney is like the power grid for a major city.

Yet compared to Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, Vladimir Putin, David Cameron, Angela Merkel, and Wen Jiabao—all heads of state—Clooney has relatively little power, at least in the domains in which heads of state operate.  In Clooney’s domain, however, he undoubtedly has more power than these politicians, and this raises an important point about power.  Power is relational and dependent on the domain in which you are operating.  The magnitude of my power depends on my relationships with others in my domain.  I may have a lot of power in my own company but no power in Nastro Azzurro (an Italian beer company), where I don’t work, have never worked, and don’t know anyone.  I can be recognized and renowned in my own field, and as a consequence have some degree of power, perhaps a lot of power, but be unknown, unappreciated, and uncared about in other fields and be essentially powerless in them.  The magnitude of my power depends, in part, on my relationships with others in my domain, on whether they recognize me—my position, capabilities, successes, potential, and on so—and grant me power.

(excerpted from Terry R. Bacon, The Elements of Power:  Lessons on Leadership and Influence, AMACOM Books, January 2011)


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