The Power Paradox

As the story goes, one day Leo the Lion, King of the Beasts, woke up from a nice long nap. He yawned loudly, stretched, scratched his back on his throne, and then let out a blood-curdling roar that shook the entire jungle. Intimidation was his style. But on this particular day the animals had had enough. They did an intervention confronting Leo with his increasingly abusive, insensitive, self-serving ways.

Blinded by self importance Leo saw no reason to change. So the animals took matters into their own hands. They withdrew their support of him as king and refused to let him continue to boss them around.

The animals actually did pretty well without Leo as their leader. Stripped of his authority, much to his credit, Leo took the time to think about the ways he had misbehaved. He felt remorseful and knew that he needed to do more than apologize for his behavior. He wanted to make amends. Without any fanfare, he began performing random acts of kindness. He offered help when needed, put himself in others’ shoes, and realized that he was no better than any of the other animals. Hearing about this shift, the animals approached Leo and offered him back his crown. It seemed that Leo had finally learned how to be the kind of leader they wanted.


This children’s story, adapted from “How Leo Learned to be King” by Marcus Pfister, illustrates what ancient wisdom and current studies have shown; the best way to gain and then demonstrate power is to do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. But here’s the paradox. Gaining a position of power usually depends on how likable you appear to be. But, with few exceptions, once they ascend to a power role, the very traits that help leaders get there in the first place vanish. This is why people often say, “He/She didn’t used to be like that.” The truth is, before they assume a power position, people really are more likable. So what happens to them?

Research psychologists have found that when they are in positions of power most people actually do change, but not for the better. Once in power their narcissism tends to increase causing them to be less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. Control replaces likability. So likability is not a reliable predictor of how power will be used. It seems that even the most popular person can morph into a different kind of beast wearing the cloak of power. Thankfully there are always exceptions.

We have all been wounded by misuses of power at some point in our lives. Since we have been conditioned to regard power as the ability to intimidate, manipulate, coerce, force, and control, we put up with it thinking we have no other choice. Our perception is that it’s too risky to offer negative feedback to someone in charge. And sometimes it really is.

So what do you do when the person you once saw as your fearless leader creates fear wherever he/she roams?

Here’s the good news. Even though you can be victimized by a power abuser, you are not a victim. You are not helpless. You have choices. And we all have power. Using your power skillfully comes from knowing what you can and cannot change, and then leveraging your power to your advantage.

There are times in life when you have no control or influence, but you still have self worth and dignity, and you always have choice. Empower yourself by accepting reality as it is, not as you’d like it to be. Choose your battles. Pick fights you can win. Be strategic. Wait until you have an advantage before doing anything. Until then, follow the Buddhist path of the peaceful warrior. “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

Gamblers practice another form of power. To win, they’ve got to know when to hold and know when to fold. Sometimes walking away from a situation, instead of hanging in there, is the most powerful thing you can do. Withdrawing is not necessarily a weakness. The animals in the jungle discovered this when they withdrew their support from Leo. They functioned just fine on their own, and taught Leo a valuable lesson motivating him to change.

There’s more good news. Neuroscience has discovered that empathy, cooperation, and collaboration are hard-wired into our brains. Everyone wants love and connection, even power abusers, whether or not they know how to go about getting it. But often like Leo, the motivation to change doesn’t come until they’ve been confronted directly.

If it seems worth the risk to speak truth to power, communicate your desire to enter into a conversation. If the person in the power role agrees, before you offer a criticism or complaint, offer something positive. You stand a better chance of being heard.

You cannot change other people, but you can become skilled in managing relationships.

  • Cultivate skills of collaboration, cooperation, and conciliation. Use these skills to your advantage. They are more powerful than force and coercion.
  • Humbly face those things over which you have no control. Sometimes doing nothing is the wisest choice.
  • Remember there is always more than one choice. What you choose may not necessarily be the best choice, but you always have the power to choose again, and again, and again.

More power to you.

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12 responses to “The Power Paradox

  1. Always lovely. Always tasteful. Always an elegant offering. Very much a reflection of your beautiful self dear Gail.

  2. One f the hardest things to do but frequently one of the wisest courses of action.

  3. Shelley Shindler

    This is so good and timely. I have found that timing is important,too…I guess it speaks to first, do nothing. Hugs

  4. This post has some great info!

  5. Gail, your writing always seems to bring relevancy to my current situation, right now it happens to be a power struggle! Thanks for your wise words!

    • I wonder which strategy you’ll use? Another way to approach a power struggle is to think about dissolving the conflict instead of resolving it. Good luck!

  6. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Tom Johnson MD, MBA

    What a great and instructive read!!!!!

  8. You’re welcome!!!

  9. That was a very powerful read!!!!! Thank you. I love it!

  10. You’re welcome. Not always easy, but in situations that are out of our control being still can be very powerful.

  11. Pauline J. Furman

    Good morning! I really like the points, particulary “do nothing”.

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