Have you ever run into someone taken by power that they will do anything to hold onto it? I have. Several times in my career in education, I have had to work in organizations with people that power had corrupted, or as Ryan puts it, “stained purple.” For whatever the reason, something changes in the character of the person, and they are willing to do whatever they have to. Whatever they have to, not to help others, but to control them, to bend them to their will, to say, “I know the best way forward, and we won’t listen to anyone else because I know best.”

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

Power Corrupts

I love this excerpt from Ryan Holiday’s enewsletter:

Take care that thou art not made into a Caesar, that thou art not dyed with this dye.” In The Daily Stoic, we have Marcus express his worry of being “stained purple.” Ok, but what is he actually talking about? He’s talking about being corrupted by power, changed by the position and fame that he has. And we know this was a lifelong concern of his. One story has Marcus Aurelius breaking down in tears when he’s told he will someday be emperor, not because he was sad, but because his study of history taught him how few people managed to leave the job unscathed, let alone unchanged. (Source: Email 3/2/24 via Ryan Holiday, Whatever You Call It, Steer Clear

Holiday makes some more excellent points in this piece, but I have to ask myself, “When I had power to make others do what I thought right, did I allow myself to be corrupted by power?” At a time when so many institutions and individuals wield tremendous power over our lives, it seems to easy to let oneself be seduced by the constant modeling around us.

If They Do It, Why Not Me?

It’s almost as if, if we see others wielding tremendous power, when it’s our turn to hold the scepter, we use it in the same way. After all, it’s the right way, isn’t it? My examples come mostly from K-12 school districts, where you see some superintendent or CTO do things a certain way, not because it’s the right way negotiated with stakeholders, but because it’s what they see as making their jobs easier or the “right way” from their perspective.

The older I get, I see how easy it is to do this. That’s why I’ve made a decision to NOT exercise institutional authority or claim organizational power. How do you wield influence without authority?

Influence Without Authority

Consider this quote about the book of the same title:

influence is not purely dependent on positional authority, but rather on individuals' skills, knowledge, relationships, and personal attributes. . .influence is most effective when it is built on a foundation of trust and mutual respect. They provide readers with practical strategies for developing strong relationships, fostering collaboration, and creating win-win situations. (source)

A perspective I agree with wholeheartedly and wish I’d know more about, truly understood it is this one:

The best leaders are those who can influence others without relying on their position or title. True power lies in your ability to positively impact those around you, regardless of your formal authority.

Unfortunately, as a young person, my focus was on getting institutional authority because it paid better. What I should have been doing better, spent more time on, valued more highly was learning how to positively impact the lives of others. But I missed that lesson growing up. It almost seems a bit late to start learning and practicing it now…but it isn’t.

What about you?