Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton said it in the 19th century, and I took that thought into my class on Power and Spirit in Organizations at Vanderbilt University. Professor Terry Deal’s class sounded amazing, but I was already convinced that power was not for me. I wanted nothing to do with it. I imagine the class would reinforce my beliefs, but of course I was wrong.
I remember him acknowledging Lord Acton’s premise, which is that the more power someone has, it can reduce their morality. Professor Deal also challenged us to think differently. “What if someone who will treat power well picks it up? What if you pick it up and make better decisions? If you don’t pick up the power, someone else will… and that will change what happens.”
This morning, I am in mourning. I am in mourning for a world where disinformation and lies can be proliferated so widely. I am in mourning for a world where one leader can take his power, ignore everyone and everything else, and cause so much harm to others. I am in mourning for a world where so many of us will go about our business thinking this has nothing to do with us.
Vladimir Putin has consolidated his power in Russia and is trying to take over his corner of the world by waging war on Ukraine. He has done so through false pretenses, telling his people that Ukraine is the aggressor. Ukraine is its own country with its own borders and its own rights that just yesterday pleaded for peace. Its army is there to defend itself, and even consists of citizens drilling on the weekends to help defend their right to live peacefully.
Power. Who is picking it up? What can we do about it? I am hopeful that the world will stand in defense of each country having the right to its own borders, land, and people. I am hopeful that the world will stand up for Ukraine, and for any other country invaded. I am hopeful that the world will not join Putin in hearkening back to degrading language and stereotyping from World War II. I am hopeful that we will understand this has everything to do with us.
We have power struggles of our own going on here at home. Who will we believe? What political party will we stand with? Who is telling us the truth? Here in Putin’s actions, we find the reality of how the world works. We have the right to do lots of things, until we cross the borders of someone else’s life and rights to harm them. Putin and Russia can exercise their free right to enhance their military, run drills, and move within their borders. So can North Korea. So can Cuba. When they start to harm other countries, or even when they start to force their own citizens who don’t want to participate to join in, then they have crossed someone’s borders to do harm. That’s where it stops. It’s the same principle here in our country. We have the right to do what we want in a lot of areas, until it can harm someone else. Then we must do our best to protect each other.
The book we used for our class was one Deal co-authored with Lee Bolman, called Leading with Soul. In the chapter about power they write, “You can give power away and wind up with more. You remember the old gasoline ad? I always thought power was like the tiger in the tank. You don’t want to let the tiger out, you just let people hear him roar. (but) hoard power, dampen spirit. That’s what I learned.”
Hoard power, dampen spirit. Isn’t that where too many of us are? We’re watching people and parties and countries hoard power and wield it, and our spirits are dampened. The ironic part is that when power is shared, not consolidated among a few, it increases. It’s because it helps all of us stand up and take part in our lives, in our democracy, because our voices are heard and we matter. When that isn’t happening, we need to stand up and make our voices heard. Can we pick up some power and use it for good? Then let’s do it. Sharing power means working together to find solutions that help everyone, not just one or the other of us. Sharing power includes listening, understanding, caring, and collaborating with others.
Today I stand solidly against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I stand hopeful that the world will unite to fight back in meaningful ways. I stand hopeful that we’ll all think more carefully about the nature of rights and boundaries and taking care of each other. I stand hopeful that we’ll use our power well and wisely. And yes, Professor Deal, your class forever changed my view of power.