When I was six, I came home from school crying. My best friend was mean to me, I told my mother in between sobs. Why, she asked? I don’t know, I cried. I didn’t do anything! The injustice of my friend’s behavior stung me. My mother was quiet for a moment, and then asked in a curious voice, “Do you think she might be jealous?” I stopped crying. “Why would she be jealous of me?” It made no sense.
But it does now. My mother had a keen eye when it came to relationships. She understood the politics of power, envy, and status, even among six year-olds. She was supportive, but never just took my side when I had a fight with a friend. She would ask me consider what motivated the conflict: competition, jealousy, hurt feelings? So I grew up thinking in terms of power: who had more, who had less, and how it tended to fluctuate, from moment to moment, situation to situation. My high school friend, Chris, was a popular football player whose status seemed unbeatable in the lunchroom but which shrunk dramatically in English class when he had to read his essays to the class. The quiet and shy girl whose name no one knew suddenly grew in stature when her picture was in the newspaper for winning a scholarship to an Ivy League school.
What I noticed then, but didn’t have words for it, is that power is contextual. It’s a ranking system that shifts moment to moment depending on a slew of variables. Like the weather, power is a complex system. There isn’t just one thing that bestows power, but multiple and intersecting experiences which conspire to create a unique and individual landscape of power. Popular culture and much of the literature on leadership would have us think of power as one thing, when in fact, we don’t possess power, but powers. My high school friend had high status as a star athlete but low status academically. The unpopular girl who won the scholarship had low popularity status, but her intelligence and social class gave her higher status. Sometimes high rank can even create low rank: in some circles, excelling in school makes you unpopular. Or your posh accent makes you the object of ridicule with some of your class mates.
And when speaking of power, we all tend to overlook the incredible benefit and power associated with intangibles like physical and mental health, birth order, and family and community attachment. Yet these determine our sense of power in the world just as much as race, gender, class and nationality.
We now recognize something called Emotional Intelligence, the ability to identify, assess, and control the emotions of oneself, others, and of groups, and even Social Intelligence, the capacity to effectively negotiate complex social relationships and environments. It’s time we added another core competency to our personal development arsenal, Power IntelligenceTM: the capacity to use one’s power, authority and status for the wellbeing of others.
Power Intelligence includes the ability to recognize a variety of powers in oneself and others, intangible ones as well as tangible ones. Having Power IntelligenceTM means recognizing how status shifts and changes from context to context and knowing how to adapt your power to fit the context. It means developing a variety of powers to influence people and the world around you, especially the less quantifiable, yet more robust personal powers, the ones over which you have greatest control. Your personal powers have the greatest scope and effect. They are most effective precisely because they don’t depend on other people’s perceptions, on a social hierarchy, or an organizational chart. These are things like resilience, confidence, core self-esteem, emotional stability, and a sense of purpose and meaning. Your personal powers are the most rock solid powers you have because they are yours to use across all contexts and in every situation.
Developing your Power IntelligenceTM ultimately means weaning yourself off of dependent power sources. Like energy, power that is sourced in social norms, organizational hierarchy or other people’s norms and values creates entanglements and dependencies. It encourages us to look to others for our self-worth. It leads to coercive and domineering behavior because we need others to behave in ways that reinforce our feelings of power. Growing your personal power enables you to thrive and prosper across all contexts, to adapt to constantly changing environments, and use all that you have to benefit yourself and the world around you.