Countering the Abuse of Power to Prevent and Repair Harm

Person walking down sunny street looks at phone, holding coat over shoulder with one handWhen I was a child in the 1950s, my father talked about power, using the old fable about the relative power of the wind and the sun. In the story, Wind and Sun had a contest to see who was stronger by agreeing to see who could be the first to get the coat off a man walking down the street. Wind blew, and almost instantly the man’s hat flew off and rolled down the path.

Wind said, “Aha! See how strong I am.”

Sun replied, “Yes, I agree. You are swift and strong, and you have won so far. But our contest is about the coat.” Wind proceeded to blow, and the man wrapped his coat closer around himself. Wind blew more and more ferociously, but the man simply pulled his coat tighter and tighter.

Then it was Sun’s turn. Sun showered her warmth onto the man and he warmed up, relieved and happy with the day. He removed his coat and carried it over his arm.

The Ways of Power

As an adult, I study the ways of power. Power is simply the ability to have an effect or to have influence. To have an effect, there must be a relationship between you and someone or something else. Surprisingly, in conversations about power, relationship, the essential ingredient of power, is often overlooked. It is, in fact, the quality of a relationship that determines whether leaders will use their power for good or for ill. Take the story of Wind and Sun: Wind has a relationship that is immediately effective but that becomes more and more adversarial and less and less effective. Sun’s relationship is warm and collaborative. Sun’s power is effective and yet connected.

Studies show the qualities, universally, that people look for in leaders are humility, fairness, trustworthiness, and an ability to mediate differences. However, the nature of elevated power (such as role power or rank power) is that it is like an addictive drug that alters one’s relationship with self and others. The spell of power can affect everyone in elevated power, no matter their intentions. The effect of elevated power is, strangely, that the qualities distinguishing good leadership are the very qualities that tend to erode when people are given increased power (Barstow, 317).

The gifts of power include greater access to resources, larger role identity, social distance, and the opportunity to act with limited interference. These gifts are important for the ability to carry out leadership responsibilities, but they also tend to decrease empathy, compassion, and the ability to see things from another’s point of view. At the same time, they also increase impetuousness and the tendency to prioritize one’s own needs (Barstow, 318, Diamond, 49).

What is lost, then, is the empathic connection to one’s own heart and to the hearts and needs of others. To counter the abuse of power, more connection, more self-awareness, more compassion, and more empathy are all necessary. Power with heart is the key to using power toward the well-being of all. So much harm is unconsciously caused by good people who under-use or over-use or deny the power they have from both role and rank. Whether out of naiveté or a lack of awareness and sensitivity, they often don’t understand the addictive and shadowy nature of power, and they may also lack knowledge of themselves and their triggers and habits of disconnection.

The gifts of power include greater access to resources, larger role identity, social distance, and the opportunity to act with limited interference. These gifts are important for the ability to carry out leadership responsibilities, but they also tend to decrease empathy, compassion, and the ability to see things from another’s point of view.

It’s essential for leaders to know the perils related to the gifts of power, and they need to find ways to keep their hearts open and engaged and to accurately hear feedback that would help them stay in healthy and truthful relationships. They need to balance their up-power roles with places in daily life where they have less power.

The Dominance Model of Power

Globally, the most common model for power is the dominance model. It is based on strategies for using power that are designed to dominate people. Another model, which I’ll call the socially responsible model, demonstrates how power is used to prevent and repair harm, to move situations forward toward the greater good, and to promote well-being and dignity (Barstow, 319).

Consider the following strategies used to gain and maintain power from the Dominance Model and notice where in your personal life, and in your sense of global awareness, you see these strategies being used. The guides are a translation of these dominating strategies into strategies of the Socially Responsible Model.

The Laws, from Robert Greene’s best-selling book, The 48 Laws of Power, represent the Dominance Model of Power

The Guides, from my book Right Use of Power: The Heart of Ethics, represent the Socially Responsible Model of Power and are arranged to correspond to and re-frame the Laws.

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Laws and Guides:

Law 2: Never put too much trust in friends. Learn how to use enemies.

Guide 1: Trust and collaborate with your friends. Learn the strategies and interests of those opposed.

Law 3: Conceal your intentions.

Guide 2: Frame your intentions to be understood.

Law 4: Always say less than necessary.

Guide 3: Strive to say what is necessary. Earn trust.

Law 6: Court attention at all costs.

Guide 4: Court attention to values, good ideas, and worthy actions.

Law 7: Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit.

Guide 5: Give credit where it is due.

Law 9: Win through your actions, never through argument.

Guide 6: Succeed through actions and philosophy.

Law 11: Learn to keep people dependent on you.

Guide 7: Be interdependent.

Law 12: Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victim.

Guide 8: Use honesty and generosity to build commitment and support.

Law 13: When asking for help, appeal to people’s self-interest, never to their mercy or gratitude.

Guide 9: Ask for help because you can put it to good use and because you represent a worthy cause.

Law 14: Pose as a friend, work as a spy.

Guide 10: Pose as a leader. Be a wise leader.

Dominance Model strategies are strong and deceptive. Like Wind blowing away the hat, they may appear to succeed, but the cost is too great and the harm is too grave. They remove the heart from power and from relationships. These strategies ultimately fail because they produce distrust, greed, selfishness, disrespect, exclusion, and exploitation.

Socially Responsible Model strategies, on the other hand, increase trust, fairness, loyalty, collaboration, inclusivity, and creativity. They rely on truth. They are relational. And they strengthen the relationship between heart and power.

What will you choose for yourself? The power of Wind or the power of Sun? If you find it difficult to make decisions regarding power and its use, consider speaking to a qualified and compassionate mental health professional.


  1. Barstow, C. (2015). Right use of power: The heart of ethics. Boulder, CO: Many Realms Publishing.
  2. Diamond, J. (2016). Power: A user’s guide. Santa Fe, NM: Belly Song Press.
  3. Greene, R. (2002). The 48 laws of power, concise edition. London, England: Profile Books.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • terrell

    August 2nd, 2017 at 11:42 AM

    Seems that there are a lot of people who thrive on holding some kind of power over another person

  • Virginia

    August 3rd, 2017 at 1:20 PM

    I have always tried to lead by example and let my actions speak for themselves. I do not wish to have people think that I am successful only because I am a bully. I want them to see that the things that I have achieved I have gotten because I have worked hard and been committed to doing a good job at what I do. There are too many people in all work places who rely on the fact that they are bigger and louder them someone else and they sort of bully their way to the top. They may achieve some sort of power from behaving that way, but they would never earn my trust in them as a result.

  • Zac

    August 4th, 2017 at 7:45 AM

    Until that person understands that they are using what they perceive to be power over you, then there can be no repair. They have to be willing to admit that what they are doing is wrong, and once that happens the true healing can begin.

  • Cedar Barstow

    December 27th, 2017 at 3:06 PM

    Thanks for your responses, Zac, Virginia, and Terrell, Wise comments. You are speaking to the addictive or trance nature of power. Even those of us who have good intentions can get entranced with power if we don’t understand and watch out for the perils and traps. Wise use of power is something that can and needs to be learned. Best wishes to you in using your power with heart.

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