What's the proper role of power in our lives? How should we think of it? How is it to be used?
A few days ago, I spoke to an amazing group of people in New York City—the Chief Information and Chief Technology Officers from over twenty major companies like 3M, AOL, CITI, NBC Universal, The Bank of New York, DreamWorks, 20Th Century Fox, and Halliburton. It was quite a band of philosophers.
In our session, we considered Aristotle’s view that the secret of human motivation is to be found in the fact that, in everything we do, all of us seek happiness, or wellbeing. If we can understand what this means, we have a leverage in our work and in our lives that’s otherwise unavailable.
And so, with this claim in mind, we quickly examined together three basic views of happiness—as pleasure, peace, or participation in something that brings fulfillment. This last contention, I believe, can actually encompass and extend the importance of both pleasure and peace in a life of happiness. Fulfilling work brings pleasure. And it also encourages a measure of inner peace. Fundamentally happy people then tend to be more committed and more creative in their work together. So my suggestion was that it’s important to explore what makes for fulfilling work and fulfilling relationships. That may give us the foundations for a great work culture that will attract and retain top talent, and provide a safe place where that talent can flourish in innovative ways.
My initial claim was then that we all encounter the world each day along four dimensions of experience:
The Intellectual Dimension, that aims at Truth
The Aesthetic Dimension, that aims at Beauty
The Moral Dimension, that aims at Goodness
The Spiritual Dimension, that aims at Unity
Accordingly, we do our best work together when we respect and nurture these four dimensions and these four ideals of Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity, which then turn out to be Four Foundations of Greatness.
During our session, as we were contemplating these four concepts, one participant asked me an interesting question: “What about Power?” No one had ever asked that before.
We were focused on Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity. But the philosopher Machiavelli once claimed that the entire goal of human life is the acquisition, use, expansion, and maintenance of power. Regardless of the accuracy of his philosophy as a statement about life, we certainly have to be concerned, in leadership positions, about power in all those ways.
So what about power? Is there another dimension of human experience with the target, or ideal, of power? Should The Four Foundations instead be Five? If not, how is power to be understood?
Here’s what I think. Power is not to be considered as an equally fundamental and fifth foundation of greatness, largely because, so far as I can see, there is no distinctive and fundamental dimension of human experience whose target or ideal it is. But it’s extremely important in its own way. And it’s related to our framework in a different and fascinating manner.
Power determines how the Four Foundations of Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity are accessed and managed. Power is what allows to you get to the Truth and then give it to others. Without the requisite power, you often can’t unearth the truth you need, and you can’t make it widely understood, or make sure it's used in the best ways. But then, of course, there’s also a converse implication. Power allows you to obscure the truth and hide it. And this applies in analogous ways to Beauty, Goodness, and Unity.
In all cases, power is about accessing and managing these ideals, and thereby determining whether or how those around you experience them. It's about the possibility of getting things done, in harmony with Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity, or not.
For a leader, power exists along a spectrum, and at each point, has degrees. That spectrum ranges from Influence to Force. There are degrees of influence just like there are degrees of force. You can be more or less persuasive in inspiring people to do things. That’s influence. And you can be more or less effective in making people do things. That’s force. The type and degree of power you have, along with how you choose to exercise it, can affect deeply the consideration of how you’re able to access and manage, and then respect and nurture Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity in your organization, among your colleagues, and in your life.
We also spoke in our session about the famous Golden Rule. When we can create a culture where we all tend to treat others the way we’d want to be treated, with respect to Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Unity, I believe we become better at using and sharing the power we have available. And we can in that way actually expand it well.
As the philosopher Francis Bacon once told us, a bit metaphorically, knowledge (our grasp of truth) is power. It can certainly bring power. The more we expand the available knowledge in our organizations, the more we expand the power we collectively have to do great things. We can then help others to attain, exercise, and maintain their own power in all the best ways. And we then enjoy a vibrant culture where, as leaders, we’re helping others to achieve peaks of performance in our work together that would otherwise be impossible to attain. We’ll attract great people. And we will tend to retain them in a type of enterprise they won’t want to leave. Through the use of philosophical wisdom, we’ll thereby provide the greener pastures that the best people always aspire to find. And that’s a nice result of power, indeed.