Volume 12, Number 7
Limits Our Power?
Lawford has a consulting practice that facilitates visioning for
individuals and organizations (firstname.lastname@example.org).
He is author of The Quest For Authentic Power (Berrett-Koehler,
San Francisco, 2002).
we don’t consistently experience ourselves as powerful, and if
we never seem to have sufficient power (or at least as much as we
would like), it is only logical to wonder who or what is limiting
The conclusions we reach in trying to answer this question
depend on our initial assumptions about the nature and sources of
Conventional Answer: Blaming Others
the prevailing paradigm we have been conditioned to believe that
power is a scarce commodity; it comes as a by-product of having
achieved some sort of status.
Whenever we see ourselves (individually, corporately, or
nationally) as less powerful than some other party, it’s only
logical to conclude that we lack whatever it takes to confer
It could be wealth, education, good looks, toughness,
strength, connections, intelligence, and so on, depending on our
particular social milieu.
It is natural to keep trying to get more of that attribute
that will elevate you to more power.
consequence of concluding that relative powerlessness is due to a
personal deficiency of some kind is the tendency to become
preoccupied with pointing the finger of blame, “It’s my
parents’ fault,” “My employer is to blame,” “The
government did it to me,” “I didn’t have the appropriate
education,” “I’ve got the wrong genes.”
The list is only limited by our imagination.
consequence of blaming others or circumstances outside our control
for lack of power is that it promotes feelings of self-pity,
jealousy, anxiety, discouragement, resentment, and resignation.
It’s not that there are no legitimate limitations to our
power; limitations based on gender, physical disability,
prejudice, etc. are all too common.
It’s that the process of assessing blame keeps us from
moving on with our lives.
The victim mentality saps resolve and strength.
Eventually it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy as people
caught up in this mindset do indeed become increasingly powerless.
Helping to keep people stuck in this morass are the
perceived benefits of being seen as a victim.
Not only does the victim get sympathy and attention, he or
she is also able to exploit the sympathetic feelings of others for
purposes of manipulation and control.
we point the finger of blame at ourselves.
“If only we had done something differently,” we reason,
“we wouldn’t be in this position.”
We tell ourselves that “we should have known better” or
“only a ‘loser’ would have let this happen.”
In this way we gradually condition ourselves to believe
that we are unworthy of success.
way of thinking is quite prevalent, even among those who are
regarded as successful or powerful.
For many, this thought process leads them to try even
harder—work harder, compete harder, be more aggressive—all
with the aim of compensating for their deficiencies.
Some end up overcompensating for their low self-esteem; as
a result they come across as aggressive, hard driving,
over-bearing, arrogant, or superior.
attempts to try harder also fail to bring about the desired
outcomes, many people eventually give up trying.
The combination of the bad cards they are dealt and their
own stupid plays are more than they can hope to overcome.
The continual berating of themselves often pushes these
people from low self-esteem into apathy, depression,
self-loathing, addictions, and other forms of self-abuse.
Actually Limits Our Experience of Authentic Power?
say there are no limits to the potential of authentic power
might be overstating the matter a little, for clearly our physical
bodies impose some limitations on us.
Nevertheless these limitations are so miniscule in
comparison to our potential powers that it would be a mistake to
dwell on them at all.
Certainly authentic power is so much greater than what we
are accustomed to thinking of as power that the latter is not even
worthy of the designation “power.”
Instead it is an illusion born of the beliefs and
assumptions with which we have been conditioned.
Since we so seldom experience this almost limitless kind of
power, possibly to the point of doubting its existence, something
must be limiting our power.
If it’s not circumstances or other people, what is it?
Experience of Authentic Power Is Limited by Our Own Beliefs
limitations on our power arise largely because of the various
beliefs and assumptions that we hold.
We cannot experience authentic power if we are directing
our quest using the assumptions of the prevailing paradigm.
We will be looking in the wrong place and using the wrong
For example, if we assume that power comes from some
external source, we will either expect someone else to empower us
or we will set about trying to win or earn more power for
Whatever power we appear to achieve by these means,
however, can’t get us what is really important to us because we
can’t force someone to love us, we can’t get respect or
loyalty on demand, we can’t achieve true peace and security
through violence, and we can’t buy fulfillment.
strategies based on these invalid beliefs about power fail (as
they ultimately will) we assume that we have been victimized, not
only by circumstances, but especially by those whom we consider to
be more fortunate and, therefore, more powerful.
Alternatively we may assume that we are undeserving,
unworthy, or incapable of experiencing real power.
In either case, the resulting victim mentality tends over
time to become entrenched as another belief.
This belief, like the other self-limiting beliefs, becomes
a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As we allow these beliefs to direct our lives, we are
strengthening the very belief system that is keeping us powerless.
Faced with more and more confirming evidence, the beliefs
harden into facts, and we keep on going around the vicious cycle.
potential power of an intention can be almost limitless.
Yet all that potential can be blocked or dissipated by
certain common beliefs.
For example, a strong intention to manage a fiscally
successful operation while treating employees honestly and fairly
could be disarmed by the belief that this goal is impossible to
in the previous example, our beliefs tend to raise doubts and
fears in us—fear of failure, of the poor opinion of others, of
loneliness, of being hurt.
Our fears and self-doubts make us susceptible to the
criticisms, threats, and bribes of others so that we are easy
victims of their manipulation and control tactics.
Similarly it is all too easy for us as managers to exploit
the fear of others as we seek to influence or control their
the other side of the equation, consider how many great
accomplishments can be attributed to people who were not
intimidated by criticism, who did not equate setbacks with
failure, and who refused to give up on their dream or to believe
that it was impossible.
Thank goodness the Wright brothers were not dissuaded from
their goal by all the people who insisted that it was impossible
for heavier-than-air machines to fly!
This example, along with countless others, should be
sufficient to convince us that you don’t have to be insane like
Don Quixote “to dream the impossible dream.”
Indeed maybe it’s those of us who allow doubts, fears,
and beliefs to come between us and our power who are the insane