#580  Innovative Leader                 Volume 12, Number 7                         July 2003

What Limits Our Power?
by G. Ross Lawford, Ph.D.

Dr. Lawford has a consulting practice that facilitates visioning for individuals and organizations (rlawford@attcacada.ca).  He is author of The Quest For Authentic Power (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2002).  

If 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 our power.  The conclusions we reach in trying to answer this question depend on our initial assumptions about the nature and sources of power.

The Conventional Answer: Blaming Others

In 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 sufficient status.  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.

One 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. 

Another 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.

Sometimes 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.

This 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.

When 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.

What Actually Limits Our Experience of Authentic Power?

To 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?

Our Experience of Authentic Power Is Limited by Our Own Beliefs

The 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 techniques.  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 ourselves.  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.

When 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.

The 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 achieve. 

As 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 behavior.

On 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 ones!

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