The Middle-East Struggle Offers Personal and Business Lessons about Sharing Power
The events that have are transpiring in the Middle East may be a watershed transformation that will influence attitudes toward leadership and power for the balance of this century, and maybe beyond. These events create an exceptional opportunity for those interested in learning the intricacies of leadership and power; and most important, the secrets to retaining power and effective leadership. History has always been a great teacher, but to be in the very midst of history as it is being made, is like an interactive field trip that brings the lessons to life.
We are witness to the validation of what Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Experience hath shown, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”
All of the leaders in the Middle East who have been overthrown or are experiencing a challenge to their power, came to power decades ago. Egypt’s Mubarak became president in 1981; Tunisia’s Zine el-Ben Ali became president in 1987, and Muammar Gaddafi became Libya’s de facto “Brotherly Leader” following a coup in 1969. He’s one of the longest serving leaders in history.
When these leaders initially assumed leadership of their respective countries, most of their subjects universally hailed them as a savior. But they share another, most troubling trait as well. Over time, like an expanding black hole of power, they consistently and systematically annexed and consolidated their power to the point that it was constricted into an ever- shrinking circle. As we are seeing in the Middle East, when power is amalgamated in this manner it ultimately implodes upon itself and all power is lost.
History is Repeating Itself
Unfortunately, these leaders are not in any exclusive club. They are following a long line of leaders who failed to understand or appreciate the most fundamental law governing the effective use and retention of power. The law simply states: Forced consolidation of power ultimately contracts, while power willingly diffused expands. Mohandas Gandhi said it best, “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear.”
The problem is that over time power tends to intoxicate the mind and cloud the reasoning of the holder. The longer one is in power, the more likely the leader will conclude that power is something that belongs to them as opposed to something that has been granted to them by the ultimate holders of power, the people. Propelled by this sense of entitlement, many leaders fall prey to a feeling of moral certainty: that only they know what is best. Worse, they hear only the answers in their minds rather than questions put to them by others. Finally they become unwilling to countenance any argument. For these leaders, “l’état, c’est moi.” (The state is me.) In describing this kind of Napoleanic attitude in leaders, Woodrow Wilson wrote, “If I am asked …how you know that you ought to do that, of which your conscience enjoins the performance? I can only say, I feel that such is my duty. Here investigation must stop; reasoning can go no farther.”
The good news (and the bad news) is that one does not have to be a national leader for the rules of power and its abuse to come into play. These laws of power can be used (or abused) by anyone at any level of power and leadership. The real value in understanding the events we are observing in the Middle East is to learn from them. Doing so will not only enhance one’s power, but effectively solidify it.
The beleaguered leaders in the Middle East have fallen prey to the traditional belief that those with power should seek every possible way to squirrel it away and protect it. Their strategy has been to search out and take power wherever it is found. We should learn a different approach.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to gain and retain power. While it may seem incongruent to this objective, the swiftest and most effective way to increased power is to share it, rather than to stockpile it. Only those who have power can share power and as they do, it makes them more powerful. As Winston Churchill once said, “It is more agreeable to have the power to give, than to receive.”
It is a difficult lesson for many to learn, but the best way to expand one’s power is to constantly look to diffuse that power. That philosophy may seem at odds with what we have traditionally learned about power. After all, power is so hard to obtain that once we have it we feel naturally inclined to keep and if possible, expand it. But the reality is that the more you apportion the power you possess, the more power you will ultimately gain.
And this notion works across all business and political levels. Amazing levels of power and leadership strength are acquired when we learn, believe and implement techniques that empower others. It is really a very simple concept. By sharing the power you have with others, you engage them as a “player” in achieving objectives. People want to have the power to make a difference and when given that opportunity they become beholden – not begrudging – to those who give them power. Like nuclear power, the chain reaction of atoms does not use power – it creates ever increasing amounts of new power.
And the Moral of the Story …
The irony is that we are not talking rocket science. But for some, it seems that putting a man on Mars is easier than learning that the way to increase one’s power is to share it. Power is shared when people are allowed to question, challenge, and suggest solutions; and when they are given the authority to implement plans. Recognize and understand exactly why you would adopt this perspective of power – the bottom line is that you are doing it for your own benefit. The beauty of this approach is that by sharing power with others you become immensely more successful than if you try to keep power to yourself.
The effort to amass, consolidate and constrict power is a sign of weakness, not strength. The leader – be it in business or politics – who seeks to hold all power exhibits an insecurity that will ultimately cause the power to overwhelm and destroy him.
When it comes to sharing power, the Brazilian writer and lyricist Paulo Coelho might have said it best, “By sharing something, I realized that I’m not alone, that there are a lot of people that share with me the same preoccupations, the same ideas, the same ideals, and the same quest …”