The Human Condition:

Sources of Personal Power – February 18, 2018

Bronze angel

As a novelist who writes stories about both interpersonal and political relationships, and a professional communicator who has specialized in issues of leadership, I am interested in the sources of personal power. How does a person gain a position of advantage, leverage, influence, or persuasion over other people? What gives one person power over him- or herself and others?

First of all, power comes from strength, both the kind of strength that performs and the kind that endures. This strength may include the physical strength of muscles and nerves, working in coordination with precise balance, sharpened senses, a high-functioning immune system, and generally good habits of nutrition, hygiene, and health. But physical strength is not the most important aspect of a person. Mental and emotional or spiritual strength, exercising the gifts of the mind, can make up for deficits of the body. These are the components of the will, without which a person can attain little mastery and almost no endurance.

Strength of mind and will comes from developed skills, acquired knowledge, and the mastery of some domain of social interchange among people or of the arts, which may be viewed as an interchange with ideals of thinking and perception. Attaining skills, knowledge, and mastery build a person’s confidence. The person becomes strong by being sure of the things he or she knows to be true and, equally, those things known and tested to be false. Knowledge and mastery place the person within the world and set him or her in a secure space.

Strength also comes from experiences of hardship and loss, of expectations denied and delayed, and other shapers of a person’s relationship with reality. A human being cannot know what he or she really wants in the world until the soft edges of intermittent desire are worn away, and whims are shown by their denial to be transient and impermanent. The infant is a vortex of desires, most of them crucial to life: food, warmth, personal comfort. The beloved child is given these things readily whenever he or she cries out. But the child too quickly learns to cry in order to get the things it wants, and then the parent must withhold—not love, never love—but the immediate satisfaction of passing wants.

In the same way, the student starting a new course of study needs encouragement and the attainment of small successes. These fix the mind on the possibilities of what is to be learned. But soon enough the student must meet a real challenge: an honest criticism, a failed test, a publicly felt rejection. These denials force the person to examine goals and test assumptions: Is mastery in this area really worth the extra study and effort that this failure suggests may now be needed? Is this a goal I really want to pursue? Is this domain truly part of my future? Without moments of failure and doubt, the person does not develop determination and perseverance. And then, ultimately, the person does not find that place in the world which confers personal meaning and confidence.

Other people can show confidence in a person and express faith in his or her accomplishments, but they cannot give that person confidence. True mastery and its acceptance come from experience and self-evaluation. Other people can erode a person’s confidence with expressions of doubt and criticism, but as they cannot bestow confidence where it does not already exist in some form, so they cannot destroy confidence once a person has felt the mastery of a body of knowledge and practice through his or her daily exercise and the strength of position.

With skills, knowledge, and mastery of some domain, a person then has something to offer others in the world. The artist and the architect alike can create and build something that will touch other people and change their lives. The doctor can heal the sick and injured. The lawyer can amend their legal troubles. The psychiatrist can address their insecurities and confusions. The novelist or the poet can create insights that help explain the world for others. The leader can use insights and experience to create a vision and solutions for the organization or for society.

The essence of personal power comes from being able to offer other people something that they need, whether it’s a medical prescription, a violin concerto, a novel, or a practical solution to a current problem. The person then has a negotiating position, a point of leverage and advantage. This is the power to shape the world around oneself, to exchange with others on the basis of equality, to confirm one’s place in society, and to confer a meaning in life.

Personal power can also come through sheer conquest: taking and controlling the life necessities that other people value, or dominating a weaker soul physically or psychologically. But that form of power is always unstable. The weaker soul either succumbs and dies out—or finds the strength to resist and rebel. And success at domination eventually invites the attention of larger and more ruthless predators, who will retaliate and exercise their own skills of conquest. The person who makes his or her personal meaning through domination must spend too much time planning attacks and defending against retaliations to make this a stable course. There is no balance here.

The one place personal power cannot originate is in weakness. A person cannot gain satisfaction in life or advantage in a situation by claiming victimhood and making petitions for consideration based on fairness or appeals for equal treatment. This may look like a shortcut to power, with the expenditure of little skill or effort, but that sort of leverage depends entirely on the conscience and concern of others, rather than their self-interest and an honest exchange of value. And, in situations of enforced scarcity or necessity, self-interest will always win out against other-interest.

A sense of power—a false sense—can come from identification with others who claim the status of victim or inheritor of unequal treatment. But weakness multiplied does not equal strength. The voices of the oppressed are only useful to those who will use the status of victim as a tool of conquest. But when those others have achieved their goals, they will have no further use for the weak. There is no balance here, either.

Society is made up of individuals. Its strength is measured by the multiplication of ones, not zeros. Balance is only achieved when strong people, with mastery of knowledge and experience, a skill set, and a place in their own world, come together to exchange the necessities of physical, mental, and spiritual life. Or so I believe.