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Acting with Power

Acting with Power

WE need to think about power differently. Deborah Gruenfeld has been teaching a class at Stanford University that is the title of her book, Acting with Power. It is a tour de force on what power is, how it works, and how it affects every aspect of our lives. We all have power. The question is, what are we doing with it?

Two statements she makes at the start caught my attention immediately:

Success, impact, and life satisfaction are not the result of how much power you can accumulate, or even how powerful others think you are; they are the result of what you are able to do for others with the power you already have.

People who use the power they have to manage their own powerless feelings are bound to stray from their responsibilities.

These two statements set the stage for what follows.

What Is Power?

Simply stated, “power is the capacity for social control.” On a more personal level. “what makes someone powerful—what makes others willing to comply with their wishes—is the degree to which they are needed. Any person’s power depends entirely on the context in which power is being negotiated.” Power is not a feeling, and if you have to talk about it, you probably have very little of it.

We can play our power up, or we can play it down. Both can be useful depending on the context and how we do it. “Pulling rank can be generous, or an expression of caring, when done by the right person at the right time.” As we see over and over in this book, the motive is the key. Sometimes you need to “power up because there will be times when other people need you to behave this way in order to protect their interests.” It lets people know, “I’ve got this.” Knowing when to power up or down is important to managing balance in a given situation.

Playing power down often helps you to connect with others and pull them in. “Playing power down is not showing weakness. It is showing that we are strong and secure enough to take personal risks and put others’ interests ahead of our own.”

Getting Good at Being Who You Are

In one of her most important and practical chapters, she talks about a much bandied and misunderstood idea—authenticity—being yourself. Too often, people get the idea the authenticity means doing whatever feels right to me because it’s who I am. I’m being real. Frequently, that will backfire.

In everyday life, we are acting, presenting an image of who we are. Being yourself is an act.

We strategically choose costumes and props, manners of speaking and moving, and even which stages to appear on, not to trick people into believing falsehoods about us but to define ourselves and express a stable, coherent identity that keeps us grounded psychologically as we grapple with the messiness, self-doubt, and confusion that are an inevitable part of the internal experience.

Acting, then, is not trying to be someone else. Acting is a disciplined approach—a code of conduct—for managing yourself. Actors are simply people who, like the rest of us, must manage the noisiest parts of themselves—their feelings, their needs and insecurities, their desires, their habits, their performance anxieties, and their fears—in order to bring the more useful parts out at the right moments.

When we behave any way we want, any time we want, we are losing the plot. We are connected to others playing a part in their stories as they do in ours. So, we need to always consider our role on the stage we are on. When we don’t, we fail the people who depend on us.

Losing the plot, like “going rogue,” describes acting in a way that is inappropriate because it does not fit the context and violates social norms in a way that is not helpful to anyone. In life, as in the theatre, the plot is the premise; it refers to the story like, the part of the given circumstances that defines what the actors have agreed to come together to do, and how they have agreed to behave while doing it.

Power as A Follower

All of us are subordinate to someone. If we are to be good in a supporting role, we first have to get our thinking right about it. If we can’t thrive in a supporting role, it means we have lost the plot if we ever really understood it in the first place.

Gruenfeld says it requires a different level of commitment and a willingness to put someone else first. Your contribution must come first without regard to recognition. “It signals clearly that you care more about the art than about being known as the artist.” Well put. People who know how to support and follow understand leadership better.

What is fulfilling, in life, is to serve a higher purpose in roles where you can have real impact—not just the ones that look good on a resume.

And then there are times when we need to step into a more powerful role. Usually, the people who want power the most, are the least qualified to exercise it.

One of the great ironies of power is that we seek leading roles in order to feel more secure and more in control, but then the joke is on us: we find that the moment we step into a powerful position is the moment we realize how little control we actually have.

The thread that runs through the abuse of power is insecurity. And we all have them. Because of that, when placed in positions of power, “people act more readily on all kinds of impulses and approach all kinds of rewards that satisfy personal needs and desires, in ways that make the most sense to them, with less concern for the social consequences of their actions.”

We know bad actors when we see them, but unfortunately, we have few role models to show us what it should look like. Gruenfeld examines some of the various types of bad actors and how we can best respond to them.

She suggests that we use a different standard when choosing leaders rather than the dominant individuals we typically associate with leadership. If we used beneficence — “the capacity in a high-power actor to prioritize the welfare of less powerful others” — then a different kind of men and women would rise to the top.

This suggests that to create organizations in which power is used effectively, it may be useful to cast people who have shown not just that they are capable of rising quickly but also that they are interested in the quality of their performances and are willing to do their time in a low-level position in order to learn, to hone their expertise, and to contribute (repeatedly) to something they care about.

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