Although people have defined power for hundreds of years as, “The ability to get others to do what you want them to do,” I believe power is the ability to do work well… and how you define well is, well, up to you.
What makes someone powerful? The ability to define and do their own work.
What makes someone powerless? The inability to define and do their own work.
World-class performers and organizations take energy, the raw human force inside each of us and refine it into work done well, into power. World-class performers seek out the people and environments that help them turn energy into power.
Positive energy moves something; negative energy is expended but results in no work being done.
The skill and ability to feel not only energized the people I interviewed, it took energy that had always existed in them and turned it into power — at first to do the work themselves, to do what they felt, then to help them discover, grow, sustain their own definition of work. As they got better at music, business, caring for others, their power was increased because they helped others turn energy into power.
Ultimately, world-class performers do not approach power as something they own or possess. Power is not something someone holds over them. Power is something they create or tap into.
Powerful then is when our personal power, the gifts we were born with honed into skills, are used to fulfill the promise inside of us.
Working with heart surgeons provides me a great example of the ability to turn energy into power. I have talked to dozens of surgeons and hundreds of medical students. I’ve talked to many patients and I can say without hesitation the one thing these three all bring to the table is energy. The surgeons being energetic about the tough cases, energy that can manifest as worry and sometimes fear. The medical students who are often idealistic, energized by the chance to answer the calling they’ve known since childhood. The patients who are afraid of the surgery, a fear energized by the clinical feel of the hospital and the confusing directions in buildings reconstructed into a maze over the years.
This energy all comes together in one place in the hospital as the patient waits, the surgeons prepare, and the students learn. Lots of energy. However, the skillful surgeon, the educated patient, and the curious student working together can turn that energy into power in the place their missions overlap.
This is very different from the image of surgeons in decades past. The surgeon was the only one with the power. Yet the student had no less energy. Neither did the patients. Whether or not their energy was turned into power was seemingly irrelevant to the process.
Now we know better and the consequences of ignoring the energy, of leaving this energy unrefined, of believing and acquiescing to the idea that someone has power over us, is simply unsustainable.
In the case of patients, the power of a doctor can be limited to within the hospital, but powerful doctors know their real power is in their ability to turn the energy of their patients into the power to heal themselves, to thrive, not merely survive. For me, nothing is more powerful than seeing a patient turn the energy of worry, fear, doubt into the power to heal themselves, to get back to the things and people they love, and to do the work of their lives.
I used the example of the patients for a specific reason. They often consider themselves powerless in the process. They often show up with their energy turned inside working against the healing process. It eats them up, makes sleeping difficult, and keeps them from moving.
The surgeon might have the ability to repair the damage to their heart, but if that is all that occurs, the patient’s energy is rarely used to assist in the healing. The patient remains scared and timid instead of using his or her energy to recover and thrive.
If this is true for heart patients, then it is also true for most employees, for most of us no matter our role. We might believe our doctors, our bosses, our politicians have power over us, but the true source of power is within each of us. Can we turn our own energy into power? Can we use our own energy to do work well?
While some of the people I interviewed viewed power in the traditional way, it seemed to me that in my interviews they talked more about power in terms of using their own energy and information to do work. They spend less time and energy worrying about the power someone else might have over them. This specifically showed up in how they talked about failure.
Many of them explicitly, “I am not afraid to fail. I hate losing, but I am not afraid of it.” They felt they could deal with losing or failing. This liberated them, allowed them to use their energy to do work instead of allowing it to fester or turn into negative energy. They sought out feedback and evaluation from people they trusted. They understood that seeking or inviting judgment would simply energize them, but with no useful information — that energy trapped inside them with nowhere to go rendered them powerless.
Powerful people and organizations turn energy into power to fulfill the individual promise as well as the collective promise of a company. Maybe it even fulfills the fundamental concept of capitalism, one I think too many of us have lost sight of. Our power comes from our own labor, from who we are, and what we do with who we are.
P. J. O’Rourke wrote this in his book about Adam Smith’s classic On the Wealth of Nations:
“The property which every man has is his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, it is the most sacred and inviolable.” Property rights are not the invention of the rich to keep the poor people off their property. Property rights are the deed we have to ownership of ourselves.”
Powerful is the power we have put to work to fulfill the promise inside of us. Power…with a promise.