The Power Paradox


Power is a natural part of life.  We all have the power to make choices and we can't escape using power.  But there are important power contradictions we need to overcome if we wish to live and work in a balanced, fair and equitable world. 

One power contradiction we need to overcome is that the skills most important to obtaining power are the very same skills that start to fall apart once we have power.  Dacher Keltner, author of The Power Paradox, says that research shows once people assume positions of power, they are more likely to act selfishly, impulsively and even aggressively, and those in power often have a harder time seeing the world from other people's points of view.  

Another power contradiction we need to overcome is that even though power is inherent in all of us, power tends to be associated with men and male dominance.  Dr. Elizabeth Debold, founding member of the Project on Women's Psychology and Girls' Development at Harvard, says that power has become a male gendered word.  She says it’s because we've been living in a male dominant culture for millennia, and domination has been a driver of our culture. 

A third power contradiction we need to overcome is that unlike men, most women have a deep-seated reluctance to step into their power.  Debold says when women work for traditional top-down male bosses, they experience dilemmas of power.  Women aren’t used to seeing themselves as powerful so they are ambivalent about having and using power. 

Another power contradiction we need to overcome is that when women step into their power, they often feel vulnerable and insecure while men don’t.  For example, Cheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and one of the most powerful women in the world, says she has trouble thinking of herself as powerful or having the kind of power that she does. 

A final power contradiction we need to overcome is that the greater success men have (as in expertise, authority, and leadership), the more likeable others think they are.  Yet the more success a woman has, the less likeable she is perceived to be.  Debold says we tend to view powerful men as physically powerful, powerful through charm and charisma, powerful through brilliance, or powerful through aggression.  Yet we tend to view powerful women as sexually provocative or domineering.  

While it’s critical we overcome these power paradoxes together, it’s especially critical for women to work through them.  Debold says when women change and develop, culture changes and develops, too.  In the 1960s when women began to work outside the home, join the military, work in media, and take control of their reproductive choices, women changed and the entire world changed right along with them.  Just like in the 60s, women must once again step into their power because this will bring a sense of possibility for a new and better world. 

In order to help women step into their power, we all need to reframe the way we view power.  Debold says instead of seeing power in the classical sense as dominance or domination over others, we need to start viewing power as “being able.”  If we view power as “being able,” women will feel comfortable stepping into their power and leading alongside men. 

Power is a normal part of life and it's innate in all of us.  But men and women alike need to understand and overcome its many contradictions in order to bring balance, fairness and equity to our world.

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Debbie L. Kasman

Principal Newcastle Public School and Author of Lotus of the Heart:  Reshaping the Human and Collective Soul