Illusion of Power

How often have we heard the President of the United States described as the “most powerful leader in the free world?” That language conjures up an image of someone who can do what he wants, when he wants.

You and I know that nothing is further from the truth. The things a president does can be overturned in the courts or overridden by legislative action. Given the obvious limitations of power…and our knowledge of these limitations…why do we feel such a strong need for it? Why do we feel that power is essential to effecting change?

Before we attempt to answer these questions, let’s get clear about what power is and is not.


Implicit in the word power is the ability to control. In that regard, we are all powerless.

If you doubt that, try getting a 3-year old to do what you want them to do. Watch as employees follow the boss’s instructions to the letter, knowing that what they’re about to do will fail. Recall the times throughout history when citizens overthrew oppressive governments.

The late Peter Schutz, CEO of Porsche AG, said “The boss has the authority, but the employees have the power, because the power resides in those who can give or withhold the necessary effort.” That’s true in all aspects of our lives.

The reality is that we can’t control anyone’s behavior…unless they grant us control. Nor can we control the outcome of anything we endeavor to do. The more quickly we realize that power is an illusion born of a desire for certainty, the more effective we become at achieving our goals.

If not power?

Acknowledging that we are powerless…that we have no ability to control…is the first step to greater success and happiness. The second step is discovering an alternative to power…to control. That alternative is influence.

Influence is the ability to engage the hearts and minds of others in a way that creates in them a desire to want to do something that is in their and your best interests. Powerful leaders are not those who can dictate to others, but those whom others choose to follow.

The most effective leaders don’t desire to lead, they have leadership foist upon them by virtue of their passion, commitment to a cause and genuine concern for the welfare of others. It’s these qualities that cause others to be attracted to them, to want to share in something larger than themselves and, in doing so, willingly look to the “leader” for guidance.

What does this mean for you?

For you

The next time you feel the desire to control things, pause…remind yourself that control isn’t possible…influence is.

Then remind yourself that influence comes from being passionate about the welfare of others to the point of being willing to take action on their behalf. As others observe your passion, your commitment, your genuine concern for their welfare, they’ll join your cause to help you make life better not just for you, but for all.

The following steps will help you achieve more than you ever imagined possible. Simply:

  • Recognize your desire for control.
  • Pause.
  • Remind yourself that power is an illusion.
  • Remind yourself that influence, not control, is the key to success.

For our kids

As you observe your kids trying to control things, help them understand that the frustration they’re experiencing is the result of their desire to control. Feel free to use the examples above to highlight the fact that no one has the ability to control others’ behavior or outcomes.

Teach them that influence gained through:

  • Passion.
  • Commitment.
  • Genuine concern for the welfare of others.

will win the day. That these are the elements of influence…the key to success and happiness.

Of course, they’re more likely to believe you when they see you living this message.

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