Power & compassion. Are YOU owning it?

22 September 2015 - 5:38pm
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Owning and using power well is a global problem - not just limited to public servants. Learnings from those in positions of greatest power can be helpful no matter which sector or role we work in.

Public servants worry about power. Legitimately so. Trapped between often whimsical governments and a hyper vigilant, needy and judgmental public it is a legitimate concern to be cautious about appearing to be too powerful. Or understanding that one has power at all. It is easy to feel like everyone’s whipping post.

But the stakes in public service are undeniably higher – as is the potential positive impact. So leadership with its reliance on personal and systemic power can generate a good deal of ambivalence in public life.

The fear of abusing power or being punished for poor use of the power that comes from leadership roles in the public sector can lead to an equally large problem. That is, the neglect of power. We know from our work as Social Leadership Australia, the neglect of power can be as bad as abuse. This is true whether we are talking about the role of parents all the way up to the running of a multinational organisation. If people in positions of authority neglect their power, it can have much more detrimental effects than abuse. Neglect is always there – abuse is often sporadic.

Being caught between a fear of abuse and the potential for neglect is problematic. How does one get out of this trap?

1. The key is to return to purpose.
I have met few public servants (particularly in senior roles) who didn’t enter and remain in the public service to "do good". This is a strong but often surprisingly undiscussed connection between all leaders in the public service. It seems this common purpose is so often taken for granted or has become banal. It may help to name more strongly why one leads in the public service. It is about compassion – being interested in the development, wellbeing and future of others is an act of compassion.

2. Recognise the privilege of public service
In my experience being this blunt about public leadership makes people uncomfortable – perhaps it should. Being this blunt about public leadership can also create an uncomfortable bedfellow with the inherent privilege of public service. Whether it’s in the Parliamentary Circle, Macquarie Street in Sydney or George Street in Brisbane, leaders in public service are privileged, living in safe communities, paid-well and with access to many privileges. It can be hard to see when we do business with so many people just like us. It supports the narrative of being powerless when surrounded by others just as privileged. It’s hard to see how relatively powerful one has become.

3. Understand, own and use the power that we have
And this is the key to navigating the fear of abuse and the dangers of neglect of power. It’s to do the counterintuitive. Namely, to see, understand and own the power that we have. Only then can we reconnect with the compassionate purpose of these roles. Because compassion requires power. If we want to do good, power enables us to do so much more. Without power, compassion is just good wishes. We can’t be compassionate without acknowledging and using our own power.

How do I see and own my power?

Firstly, recognise that the power which comes from my role is only a small part of the picture. Our position in a hierarchy is temporal. It brings many privileges but it can shift very quickly and only gets you so far – particularly during times of change and uncertainty. More importantly is seeing the other dimensions of power that we hold – these are less formal. Firstly the often uncomfortable power we are born with which comes with gender, class, race, language, family, etc. In other words the power that comes from being part of the mainstream. Secondly, recognising the psychological power that comes from experience, hardship and being loved or loving. This manifests as our confidence and reputation.


Power as the path back to the purpose 

In our work as SLA, I have been heartened in our work and inspired to watch public servants at all levels make these realisations: that they have power; that they are not helpless; and, most importantly, that owning and understanding power is a way back to why they entered this vocation in the first place – to exercise compassionate leadership.

This has a significant impact on how public executives and senior managers take up their role and not push their authority upwards, how they can deal with conflict more productively, their ability to do business with higher authority in a more assertive way and ultimately to lead in a more sustainable way personally. But more on that in the next installment.

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