What is power? – Introduction

The problem of defining what power really is.
All recognize power when they see it, but what is power per se?

I WAS ALWAYS baffled by the problem of defining what power is.

Since I remember myself, I have been fascinated with power. I grew up in admiration of power as depicted mainly by the ‘bad guys’ in cartoons, movies, animes and even mythology.

For reasons I realized much later, I found the power wielded by the ‘good guys’ as inferior and surely biased. The ‘good guys’ have to win, so they always win in most cases through not so convincing ways. I still consider this to be extremely distasteful and bad form.

Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader from the Star Wars universe, Commander Cobra from the G.I. Joe universe, Mumm-Ra from the ThunderCats universe , King Zarkon from the Voltron universe, Pain and Uchiha Madara from the Naruto universe; no matter in what universe you live in, the ‘bad guys’ were my kind of guys.

I ADMIRE AND RESPECT power, yet, truth be told, I do not know what power actually is. I mean, granted, I have a basic grasp of the notion of power, I can recognize a powerful fleet of imperial-class star destroyers when I see it, but I know of no clear definition of power when it comes to human activities; at least one that is universal and applies to all aspects and manifestations of power, without generating contradictions and paradoxes. The definition ‘power is when you get to have your way over other people’ is not very helpful.

It seems that is the case with most people. Most people can identify a man of obvious/tangible power (be it physically, socially, by status etc.), some can recognize more subtle forms of power (what is described by phrases such as ‘working behind the scenes’, ‘puppet master’, or ‘pulling all the strings’), but few if any has any real grasp of what power actually is; and why it is often the case than a man of obvious power is in practice weaker than a man of subtle power.

THERE IS A GREAT QUOTE from the book ‘A Clash of Kings’ by George Martin, where this exact problem is addressed. It is posed in the form of a riddle, asked by Varys (an eunuch, master manipulator and commander of a vast network of informants), to Tyrion Lannister (a witty dwarf, member of one of the great houses of the realm):

In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?

– George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

In other words, who has power over the other? Every each one of them is considered by any standard to be a ‘powerful man.’

After a short exchange, where every choice is shown by Varys to be wrong, or at least inadequate, Varys gives away the answer to the problem of power:

Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.

– George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

SO, IT’S ALL JUST A show? There is no such thing as ‘power?’ Yeah, it could be.

That explains why powerful people are sometimes overcame by less powerful people. No strict metric can be defined with which to measure power between individuals. There is no clear rule by which to decide if a certain individual is more powerful than another.

Just like with complex numbers in Mathematics, where there is no way of comparing two complex numbers the way it is with real numbers (e.g. 7 is bigger than 5, and all are content with it), the same goes in the field of power. You cannot compare two (powerful or not) people regarding power.

If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito

– Attributed to 14th Dalai Lama

The perplexity of relations created in the societies of men and women is so perplexing, that all get perplexed about it.

In bottom line, it’s all about incalculability. There are so many variance in the game, literally infinite, that there is absolutely no way anyone can calculate the outcome.

Moreover, the system of human relations in instable, meaning that even a minor cause can have a major effect in the long run. If this brings in mind butterflies, yeap, it’s a vast, gorgeous chaos out there and we have to enjoy it.

BUT, WHAT ALL THESE MEAN? That change is the only constant in life and in the universe. If you do not constantly adapt your game, if you do not evolve in response with the environment (let it be professional, personal, political, whatever), your power will wither and you will eventually perish, beaten and defeated.

TO BE JUST, though, the aphorism that ‘power resides where men believe it resides,’ means that one can create power out of thin air. Just act like it, really really convincingly, and you may trick people that you have power. In such a way, if you achieve to trick people into believing that you have power, you will actually wield power!

It’s a paradox, to be sure, but we all know it to be true. How many time have we seen colleagues we consider to be absolutely worthless yet enjoy power in the structure of the company? And do we have to speak about politics and politicians? Of course not.

Obviously that kind of power is not going to get you far for long, but it actually works.