The Other Way Power is Abused


When you think of power and people who abuse it, what often comes to mind is the forceful, aggressive kind of person who pushes their agenda at all costs and disregards the opinions of anyone in their way. Bullies are characterized this way.

Another way that people abuse power that is less recognized is neglect. Another word that I think fits is “abdication.” When we accept the mantle of responsibility, we are making an agreement that we will act responsibly and be accountable for everything that is associated with the role we have accepted. AND it is our responsibility to know what that means and where the boundaries of that power lie.

I see many examples of people and institutions who have abdicated the power they have willingly assumed. Some examples of what I mean include:

  • Parents who ignore the bad behavior of their children even when it is clearly distressing to them and others present
  • Leaders who fail to ask for or ignore the truth when it is given
  • New managers who think that their skills as individual contributors are good enough to make them competent
  • Politicians who ignore the pleas and concerns of their constituents in favor of their own interests

The recent scandal at Penn State is a clear example of what I mean. People who had enormous power to stop criminal behavior, chose to turn their heads and look the other way instead of acting. It was easier, it was safer (for them) and it preserved their own interest: to maintain the status quo.

And now we are seeing the cost of this failure in human terms: Lives and trust destroyed.

There is a saying in business that “it is better to act and ask for forgiveness than ask for permission and be told no….”

But the trouble is, not everything can be forgiven. Not all can be healed. Abuse of power scars our psyche. It tilts the balance ever toward destruction and cynicism. The future decisions and choices we make are informed by this betrayal of trust.

We lose good people and good people become lost.

Power is not something that only some people have, it is something that we ALL have and we use and mis-use it every day. In the jobs we hold, as parents, as care-takers of the environment, as stewards to our pets, as citizens and in all the other ways we live in relation to the world around us, we have power. If we don’t take it seriously, if we ignore it, if we neglect it, it becomes destructive and whether we admit it or not, our impact on the world – our immediate world and the larger global community – is profound.

You have power – whether you know it or not, whether you admit it or not. You have power. Here’s how you can tell if you have power: you are breathing.

Own your breath and please breathe responsibly: Show up. Don’t assume. When you know you need help, ask for it. Take the feedback of people you trust. Look honestly at yourself and get therapy if you need it. Use kindness and allow vulnerability in others. Don’t look away. Speak what you see. Tell the truth. Listen. Cry. Be humble. Take every choice seriously and think about who will be impacted by that choice.

Own your power and use it responsibly…now breathe.