It’s been over a month since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, resulting in a massive humanitarian crisis, and one of the biggest refugee crises of modern times—forcing more than 3.7 million Ukrainians to flee to neighboring countries.
Putin badly miscalculated the Ukrainian people, expecting a quick rout. But the West also badly miscalculated Putin. Sanctions may work, but money is not the only thing that moves Putin. More important than money is power.
In a widely circulated video of Putin meeting with his security council, Putin is seen sitting behind a large desk at one end of the room. Far away, in a circle of chairs, sit his advisors.
He calls on his subordinates, one by one, asking for their opinions whether or not to invade Ukraine. When called upon, each one stands up, and somewhat timidly, gives their opinion, that yes, they should invade. The viewer is meant to believe that this was a consensus, as if each could truly speak his or her mind.
Over the span of his rule since 1999, as President or Prime Minister, Putin has created what’s indispensable for despotism: a total echo chamber. To ensure his reign, he surrounds himself not with the brightest but with the most obedient. Because where there is absolute power, there can be no equals. Just lackeys or enemies.
While many abhor his actions , Putin does have admirers — those who see his absolute grip on power as something to be admired. And that is a reflection of the accelerating decline in democracy.
Sharing power is central to democracy. And yet virtually impossible. The temptations for using power for one’s own purposes are too great. This is what motivated me to investigate the competencies needed to use power wisely, to self-govern our relationship with power.
Because if we can’t use power wisely (and indeed, we can’t, or at least not enough) to negotiate and cooperate with others, what hope is there for democracy?
But I found that individual competencies are necessary but insufficient. Because self-awareness and our very best intentions aren’t enough to curtail self-interest and the temptations of power. They need to be supplemented by controls and guardrails.
This is true for us politically, personally, and professionally. Because power is always a problem of scale—these same dynamics we’re witnessing on the world stage also play out, on a much smaller scale, at work, in schools, in organizations, and in our most intimate relationships.
Where the guardrails are weak, abuse of power is an inevitable outcome. But what are the guardrails? What, beyond our good intentions and self-awareness, is needed?
Democracy is based on opposition. But democracy degrades when we dismiss, criminalize, or vilify the opposition — threatening to put rival candidates in jail or seeding the populace with fears about election integrity.
Bringing this down to scale, we see this when:
We dismiss people with opposing views, refusing to engage or entertain their position, “canceling” or firing them for their views
Managers disregard or dismiss an employee’s complaint about a co-worker’s inappropriate behavior by saying “well, that’s just the culture around here”
When leaders discourage debate or challenge, whether directly by taking silence as agreement or indirectly by criticizing or demeaning others’ opinions.
Whatever your base of power, whatever size your organization, it’s critical that opposition, challenge, and views counter to your own be a protected and sought-after part of your regime. You may not agree, and you’re free to debate, but you should never dismiss, criminalize, or otherwise delegitimize opposition.
Ensure Objective Oversight
Abuse of power flourishes where there is no oversight. Without consequences, despots act with impunity.
While this emboldens those who seek power, it also weakens them. As Heather Cox Richardson wrote:
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown the weakness of modern authoritarianism … The corruption inherent in a one-party state of loyalists, unafflicted by oversight, has hollowed out the Russian military, making it unable to feed or supply its troops.”
Without oversight, we’re prone to conflicts of interest. We’re free to indulge our own needs. More often, in a democratic society, oversight is present, but compromised or weak, for instance regulatory bodies staffed by former members of the companies they now oversee, as in the banking industry, or Human Resource departments who shelter toxic managers because their loyalty is to the executives and not to employee well-being.
If you sit in a seat of power, who supervises your work?
Who has the power to discipline or review your work? Are they truly neutral? Are there interests in common that might compromise their neutrality? And what are the standards or benchmarks for measuring your success, and who sets them? Do they serve your interests or that of your customers, employees, or clients?
When there is no insight into how power is gained, used, or shared, there can be no sharing of power. We see a lack of transparency when
decisions are made behind closed doors;
there’s no clear pathway for advancement or promotion;
meeting agendas aren’t shared in advance, people don’t know the purpose, or the context for the meeting.
When the game rules aren’t evident, people can’t play. They can’t participate. They can’t make decisions. They can’t meaningfully contribute to the conversation. Hoarding information is a power grab.
Proper use of power means ensuring others are as informed as you are so that they can participate to their fullest. To do this, you have to …
Be transparent about where power resides. Too often, well-intentioned people with rank try to conceal or minimize their power, to act as equals. But it always backfires because minimizing power just makes it less transparent, not less lethal.
Make information easy to find. Even when there are transparent rules and procedures, consequences and repercussions, if those processes aren’t easy to find or easy to understand, then they’re not transparent.
Have clear processes for how decisions get made. When decisions are made in subgroups or cliques, or you have to be ‘in the know’ in order to be informed, that’s not transparency.
Transparency is a key difference between autocracy and democracy. You can only truly consent to power when there is transparency. You cannot consent to what you do not know.
If these difficult times teach us anything, I hope they teach us how important it is to guard these guardrails.
Thanks for reading!