Perception Leads to Power

Power, while a ubiquitous concept, can be tough to describe.  It often describe the presence and maintenance of authority and respect. It often provides exclusive access and inclusion into confidential discussions and important decisions. Power's longevity, and its potency, and what it takes to maintain it, often has very little to do with possessing righteousness, wisdom or experience. It often has more to do with creating - and maintaining - others' perception that those things come naturally to you, even when they don't.

What then, is the difference between 'actual' power and 'perceived' power? Does it even matter? For some - like Donald Trump, or Steve Jobs, or Warren Buffet, or any number of tech startup founders - power and success appear to have been hard-earned. Trump has written books on success. Jobs took a floundering company and turned it around. Others invented Facebook and Twitter. If that's not evidence of success, then I don't know what is.

It's arguable how much power in this country comes from success at creating wealth and notoriety for oneself.  I can't think of two more American pursuits - profit and self-promotion. A qualitative assessment of your average 'powerful individual' - anything other than their fortune - reveals what exactly? Maybe an arrogant jerk. Maybe a good manipulator. Maybe an intimidating presence. These are all, of course, admirable traits in a society where power is directly related to perception.

People with great social savvy or survival instinct are often more 'powerful.' Power is not always obtained through great wisdom or experience. Sometimes those who are best at forcefully crafting public personas that inspire fear or awe are people who accumulate power. They can sense what people need from them. They can also sense what people fear. Some are good at giving out the right body language and inflection when there is doubt from investors or subordinates. Others take potentially ruinous scandals and turn them into opportunities to heap blame on someone else. This opportunism - unfortunately often at somebody's expense - is a quality that often attracts power.

Consider the role that consumer and shareholder confidence plays in the performance or perception of success of any publicly traded entity. This confidence is applicable anywhere in the world, whether you are dealing with a department hierarchy or whether you are dealing with friends and acquaintances. Perception. Is. Everything.

I posit that power's potency is determined by the strength of the expectations and perceptions that are constructed around any given position. If you are a manager, even if you lack experience and good judgement and people skills - I would argue that it almost doesn't matter. Merely by way of the perceptions that 'manager' invokes, you have much less to prove than others might. The movie 'Office Space' was surprisingly astute in chronicling how laziness and apathy is often, in the business world, mistaken for calm and confidence, and how those who care the least end up in the most privileged positions, while those who gnash their teeth and break their backs remain at the bottom because that attitude doesn't inspire confidence. It shouldn't be that way, but it is.

I can manage a company with a style that doesn't foster a constructive working environment or help the company succeed, but if I am good at carefully controlling my image and manipulating others' perception of how I am doing, it doesn't matter how much of a failure I am. I will succeed and I am 'powerful.'


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