Empower over Power

Master Class Series #8

March 26, 2021
The accumulation of power seems like a good idea at first. Then we see how deeply insecure some billionaires and leaders of countries can be. What if no amount of power could ever make you feel safe? What if it was just another thing that could be taken away from you? What if being empowered is the key to the only security that truly sets you free?

Episode intro:

Power is control over other people and empowered means that you are not looking for control of others. You are just being you despite the consequences.

Hello and welcome back to The Art of Accomplishment. Where we explore how self-awareness can transform our businesses, relationships and lives.

My name is Brett Kistler, I am an adventurer, entrepreneur and a self-exploration enthusiast. I am here with my co-host, Joe Hudson. Joe is a business coach who spent decades working with some of the world's top executives and teams, developing a unique model of human patterns that underpin how we operate with ourselves, each other and the world.

A good entry point in this model is a mindset called VIEW, vulnerability, impartiality, empathy and wonder.  Through understanding and cultivation, we learn to drop into VIEW with ease, deepening self-awareness and increasing our connection with the world around us.  

To learn more about VIEW, this podcast, online courses and to join our community, visit

The accumulation of power seems like a good idea at first. Then we see how deeply insecure some billionaires and leaders of countries can be. What if no amount of power could ever make you feel safe? What if it was just another thing that could be taken away from you? What if being empowered is the key to the only security that truly sets you free?

Brett: Joe, what makes this distinction so important?

Joe: The empowered overpower distinction. I think there's a deep confusion in us as a people and internally between the two and that confusion is what creates the subjugation that we feel both in the relationship to ourselves and the relationship with the outside world. To clarify that confusion, to actually see that we are always a choice and that choice is always empowered, whether we want to admit it or not is a way to set us free from that subjugation.

Brett: Power is real. There are people who really do have power over us and there are situations in which we have limited control. That must be partially responsible for our situation.

Joe: Yes and no. The thing is, that we're all interdependent, everything is interdependent. It's like a gigantic machine if you will or a gigantic ecosystem. Who has the power, the ants or the mountain lion or the rabbits? If any of them go, the whole system changes. The whole system is dependent on all the other parts of the system. In that way, yes, there are things that have power over us. If you're a deer, deer ticks have power over you and mountain lions have power over you, but if you're a mountain lion, deer have power over you because if the deer disappear, you're screwed, you're not eating. There's a way of looking at it that says, "Oh, wow, everything that I'm interdependent on has power over me." You can look at it that way and it's absolutely true.

The other way to look at it is that, our choice is ours. We get to choose and we might not like the consequences. We don't always have control over the consequences. I think when we don't have control over the consequences, that's when the mind wants to say, "Oh, somebody has power over me." But there's nobody on this planet that isn't dependent on somebody else or something else.

Take the most powerful person in the world, if people stop buying their product or if people rebel against them or if the price of oil goes to $20 a barrel and all of a sudden, their money to control their society goes away. Everybody has something like that. It's something that I think about oftentimes when I'm thinking about CEOs and my experience in working with them is that they have more bosses than anybody. They have their key employees who they need to keep happy, their customers they need to keep happy, their shareholders they need to keep happy. They have Board of Directors they need to keep happy. There are so many people who they are dependent on or they need their approval or they need them to buy into their vision in some way.

There's nobody in this system that isn't dependent on other people. There's nobody in this system that isn't scared to change the system because of consequences. As one person is sitting there and saying, "Hey, if I stand up for myself, I'll lose my job." There's a CEO that says, "Hey, if I don't give my quarterly numbers, I'll lose my job. If I don't get to the quarterly numbers, I'll lose my job." There's a billionaire that's like, "Wow, if I don't keep on finding more oil, I'm going to lose my fortune."

There's something everywhere, everybody's got something. In that aspect, absolutely, everybody has somebody who has power over them. I think we often think about the people who diversified, like lots of customers or lots of people as more powerful, meaning that they're not dependent on one person. They're not dependent on one customer. They feel more powerful on our system but, everybody's dependent.

Brett: It sounds like what you're pointing at in terms of power, when something has power over us, it's setting the constraints of our environment. If we have power over someone else, we have the power to set the constraints for the system in some way, but that doesn't tell the whole story. There's what we do within the constraints and which constraints we buy into or don't.

Joe: That's it. Inside of the constraints, you're completely empowered. The way that you show up inside the constraints, the constraints have to adjust. Meaning, if you are scared of losing your job and you say, "Forget it, I'm going to show up the way that feels right for me and if I get fired, I get fired." You will change the system. There's no way for it not to change, even if you get fired. There's no way for the system not to change. There's no way that the way you interact with the system doesn't affect it.

Brett: Even the structure of a company or even the interpersonal relations in your team will change if you're not being the same cog in the ecosystem that was existing before.

Joe: That's right. You see this. Working with CEOs and working with billionaires, you see this all the time, that there's a whole bunch of things that they want to affect change on that they can't. They don't know how to or that nobody knows how to or it's just beyond their control. It's not like anybody in any situation doesn't have something that they're not able to affect the change on. There're billionaires that I know that if they could control everything, they would have more billions and there're billionaires I know, that if they could control everything, everybody would have social and economic equality but they can't, just like we can't, you can't, I can't, nobody can. As long as you need to control a situation to feel empowered, then you are subjugated.

Brett: That's not real empowerment.

Joe: That's right.

Brett: Where does this come from? Where does this yearning for power arise from if not empowerment?

Joe: Fear. If we're making the distinction between power and empowered and I think that even in our language, oftentimes, when someone says, "I feel powerful," they mean empowered. As far as the semantics we're going to use, that means empowered. Then some people are like, "I feel powerful, meaning I have control over you." People who want to feel powerful control over situations just fear. They are scared. On some level, we all are scared when we are looking to find power. Now, power might come to us and just because I have power doesn't mean I'm scared, but if I'm looking for it, then I'm scared.

Brett: How does achieving some sense of power actually satiate or affect that fear, or does it?

Joe: It doesn't. It's like any addiction. There's a short-term high that you get and then it's over. I remember when I was in one of my poorest times in my life when I had the least amount of resources and my attitude towards money and power was changing. I was driving in my car and I was thinking, "Oh, I don't have enough." As it turned out at that time, I knew several billionaires and I went through the list and I'm like, "Oh, they're driving around right now thinking they don't have enough either." Like, "Oh my God, I'm a billionaire." My situation, their situation is no different. They can affect some change in a way that I can't, but I can affect some change in the way that they can't.

Brett: I could imagine a situation where a billionaire even feels more powerless, because they realize they have all this money and they're actually not able to change the world. So they don't get to believe that money would solve that problem for them.

Joe: That's right. That's the thing is, one of the best investors I ever met said that if you see somebody who thinks that money is going to solve their problems, don't invest. They're dead right. Capitalization doesn't solve problems. It makes them bigger often.

Brett: You throw money at problems and you end up with bigger problems that require money to sustain.

Joe: Yes, that's right. It's like this illusion, once you have the power, then you got to worry about holding on to it. Another billionaire guy told me at one point, he said, “Everybody works, Joe. Everybody works.” If you have a billion dollars, you got to work to maintain it. Everybody works.

Brett: If you're going for social capital, you have the billion dollars. You still have to work to maintain social capital and connections.

Joe: Yes, or you've got $54 billion and you can't affect an election. One guy with maybe a billion dollars can beat another guy with 54 billion. Both of them can be beaten with somebody with less than a million. Power isn’t accumulated by more power. It makes it easier in some forms of power, but sometimes having large amounts of power actually make it harder to accumulate power.

Brett: In the current election cycle, trying to get elected as a billionaire takes you down a whole bunch of notches already.

Joe: Right, or being a really big shot investor with a lot of power. On some level, there's some benefits to it and on other levels, a lot of people follow you, which creates complications as far as liquidity and other things. It's the same thing with somebody who has the power of leadership in a small community. On one level, there's certain things that they can affect change around that other people can't and in another level, there are certain things they can't.

There's a certain balance that is struck in any leadership position and some things can be taken away from you more readily and some things you can't affect change on. It's something that I realized when I was in Boards of Directors. Sometimes in certain Boards of Directors, I had more power being off the board than I did being on the board. Being on the board, I was part of the dynamic and I couldn't help the leadership see through the dynamic. My capacity to help people see through the dynamic was more powerful than having a vote.

Brett: Everything unseen and behind the curtain kind of thing.

Joe: The way that I define power is, that power is the thing that can be taken away from you. Empowerment can't be taken away from you. Power is control over other people and empowered means that you're not looking for control of others. You're just being you despite the consequences. Power is looking to find safety. It's an expression of fear. Empowered is standing in the face of that fear and being truthful to yourself.

If you think about every story that we've ever heard, it's always the story of the person who goes against the consequences for their truth. This is what we long for in ourselves is that, “I'm going to be empowered in a way that I will do the right thing despite the consequences whether I'm saving somebody from a burning building or whether I'm risking my job to be authentic.” That's what empowered is.

Brett: Yes, burning building was a good example because, running into a burning building to save somebody, the fire has power over you. There's nothing anybody's going to do to change that, but you are going into the burning building to do your truth, to try to save somebody regardless of the consequences. You're willing to experience and feel the consequences of coming up against something with much greater power than you.

Joe: Yes, that's right. There's the material power, like money or gun or fire and then there's also just the power of influence over you or other people. What I noticed is that when people act empowered, eight times out of 10, maybe seven times out of 10, the consequence that they're scared of doesn't come to pass. Even though the moment before they take that action, they're pretty sure it's inevitable. If I'm saying I'm going to be true to my wife even though I might lose her, eight times out of 10, I'm not going to lose her. If I'm saying I'm going to be true to myself even if I might get fired, eight out of 10 times, I don't get fired.

If you're actually going into a burning building, I don't know what the odds are. It is not something that I have enough experience with. I will say, the other part of that is that even when you act empowered and things don't go the way you want them to go, they end up going the way you want them to go eventually. Meaning, yes, maybe your wife leaves you but eventually, you get in a relationship that works for you. Meaning that as you act empowered, as you act in your truth, the world that can handle your truth surrounds you and that becomes your reality bubble.

We're all in these echo chambers. If I believe one political thing, I'm going to be in an echo chamber of verification of that. If I believe something else, I'll be in an echo chamber that verifies that. It's how our consciousness works and if we're true to ourselves, we end up in an echo chamber that is true to ourselves.

Brett: It seems there's a difference between the actual constraints that our environment places on us and then the predictive constraints that we are simulating, that we are actually acting on, which are not exactly the real constraints of the environment. If we start operating in a way that doesn't fit the constraints of our immediate environment, we may end up losing a partnership, we may end up losing a job. If we stick with operating as though the world had the constraints that we want, eventually, we will only end up fitting into a system that fits those constraints.

Joe: That's right. You see this in great leadership. I would say that one of the ways that you know that you're empowered is that you're acting in a way as if your reality is already true, that your vision is already true. If you're a civil rights leader, you're acting as if you are already equal and free. You're being that example for everybody to follow and you're assuming that everybody will treat you that way. It starts bending the world into that way of treating you. If you feel like you're less than, then your civil rights movement by its nature will have more friction in it. More people will treat you as you're less than.

It’s the same with anything-- if you're acting as a leader of a CEO and you're like, “Of course, we're going to be successful,” and you’re acting like you're successful. When you're in the negotiations, you're acting like you're successful, then the world wants to bend towards that. It doesn't mean it bends towards it all the time, but it wants to bend towards that. That's what being a visionary is and that is, if you're empowered, then that visionary nature starts becoming more and more obvious to you. It just becomes something that starts happening.

Brett: That brings up an interesting subtlety, the idea of acting as though you're already successful. It seems like there could be ways of performing success that are not beneficial, but the actual belief that you are successful. How would you distinguish between those two things?

Joe: The way I would distinguish between those two things is, that there's a great story. It was an admiral in the Navy who got into a POW camp in Vietnam and he was asked who made it, who didn't make it? He said, “Well, who didn't make it was easy. That was the optimist.” The interviewer is like, “What do you mean optimist?” He said, “It means that they thought they were going to get out by Christmas or by the next season or whatever it was. They didn't make it, because when that came, that timetable came and left, they became defeated and they didn't make it.” He said, “Well, who did make it?” He said, “Well, that's clear, it's the people who thought that they would get out. The people who maintained that vision of their own freedom.”

Brett: In that sense, if we find ourselves performing successfulness and then, signs of failure come, then that can just completely break down and we'll actually just believe our failure and that'll be the end, whereas realizing that this business can entirely fail and I still feel empowered as the person who can be successful.

Joe: Correct and will be. It might be the next business. You see this all the time when people are transforming. When they're changing, they have this massive breakthrough and then they go, “Oh!” then, they feel disempowered because of the power of the pattern and they’re like, "How do I keep it? How do I keep this breakthrough?" As soon as you see that, as soon as you see somebody start wrestling with how do I keep it, you know that it's going to be in flux. You know that it's going to pendulate back and forth for a while.

But when the person sees it so clearly that they're like, "Of course, this is what's happening," then it's over. Even if it comes back a little bit, it's over. The whole process is quicker. If somebody has been getting angry a ton in their world and then all of a sudden they have this breakthrough of like, "Oh my gosh, it's not that I'm angry. It's that I'm hurt." They start crying and they see this new reality.  They're like, "Yes." Of course, they don't need to hold on to it. Then you know that that change is going to be smooth and quick. If they are like, "Oh my God, I see it. How do I keep it?" Then you know that they're not fully empowered.

Brett: That's a belief that's fragile then and that they don't really have it.

Joe: Exactly. In that belief system, they still feel like this thing has power over them, this influence. What's interesting is, of course, it has power over you, of course and it's exactly that that you need to enter into. It's exactly that helplessness that helps us become empowered. What I mean by that specifically, because that can be incredibly confusing is, that going through the feeling of helplessness is what creates, oftentimes, that sense of empowerment.

Brett: Yes, that's important, because what you were just saying earlier is that the power itself or the seeking of power as a deep expression of fear and it seems like that would be the fear of feeling the helplessness, the fear of being helpless. If you just move through that helplessness, then you end up on the other side feeling empowered.

Joe: That's it. You just said it better than I could.

Brett: Is there anything else you want to add to the definition of empowered?

Joe: Yes. Empowered really is a feeling. It's a state. It's not a life condition. Meaning, you can be a billionaire and feel empowered and you can be in poverty and feel empowered. It's not really about how many resources you have. It's about your resourcefulness. It's knowing that you have the courage to do what's true for you.

The other thing about empoweredness is that you can't really love without it. If you look at all the people who we see as beacons of love, there is a deep sense of empowerment to them. If you close your eyes and you go inside and you feel what it is to be unconditionally loving and then you feel what it is to be unconditionally empowered, you'll notice that they're two sides of the same mountain and you can't get to the peak without both sides of the mountain.

Brett: I'm curious about what some of the different ways are that we allow ourselves to have power taking over us. What are some of the types of power? There can be economic power, there could be emotional power. I think a lot of this could allude to the victim-savior-bully stuff that we've discussed in some of the other episodes.

Joe: When we're in fear, which is often when we're seeking power over another person, we're often in a victim, savior or a bully role. That is a good sign that you're in the power over. You can have power over somebody by being a bully. That role we know really well. Our society agrees with that one. They're like, "Oh yes, that person's a bully. They want power over."

But you can get power over people as a victim too. I was watching a television show about magic and for whatever reason, they had this group of moms and they were all talking about guilt. They were all laughing and smiling over how guilt was a good way to control their kids. It's like, "Right, that is how people can control through the victim." Like, I'm so fragile that you can't tell me your truth. If there is somebody in your life that you can't tell your truth to because you're scared of hurting them, then you're being somebody who's controlling through victimhood.

It's the same way with a savior. You can control people by saving them. You see this in very wealthy families all the time. They maintain control over their children by making sure that their money is there to save them. Or the Al-Anon saving the alcoholic. It happens all the time. There's all sorts of ways in which we are trying to have power over people. They mostly fit in the three categories, which is victim, savior and bully.

Brett: The example with the rich people with the money doing the savior thing, I think there's many ways that that could apply to philanthropy as well.

Joe: Yes, absolutely.

Brett: Philanthropy can be done in a way that is entirely disempowering and that it can be done in a way that is empowering and I think a lot of that would come from the mindset of the people involved on all sides of it in the system.

Joe: That's right. When I did a lot of philanthropy with schools and with kids, I would stay away from working with anybody who was coming from a place of guilt, that they were doing it because they felt guilty because their philanthropy just didn't work. If they were trying to help people, I would also stay away from it. If they were working with people so that both they and the people they were there to serve were being helped, then those were effective.

Brett: What's an example of how that would work? Philanthropy failing, because it came from a place of guilt.

Joe: I was in Nicaragua at one point and there was a group of Canadians there that had brought a whole bunch of clothing for this village. They all felt really great about themselves. When I asked them why they did it, they were all like, "Oh, I just feel bad that we have so much and I want to spread it." There's nothing wrong with it, but it just isn't successful. I remember sitting with them and saying, "Hey, there's all these turtles here that are going extinct." All these people could be saving the turtles. What if they earned their clothing by helping the turtles? How does that change this whole system?

What it does change is, it makes people have an equal exchange and so they feel empowered. If somebody's just giving them stuff without an exchange, then it's actually quite disempowering because now you have power over them because they need you to give them stuff. In the '70s in Africa, you saw where food drops would happen. Then when the people who had the walkie talkies that helped the food drops happen went away, the native people tried to build fake walkie talkies and act like the person with the walkie talkies to get the food to drop.

It's like you're not teaching that person how to fish. You're giving them fish. When people act out of guilt, that's usually how it works, because they feel like they have to give. Good philanthropy is an exchange. It's not a gift. It's a recognition that you're getting as much from it as you're giving.

Brett: That segues to another interesting thing from earlier in the conversation about your empowerment is something that you have to give up. You choose to give up your empowerment. Let's talk a little more about that.

Joe: There's a choice that you make and every time that you feel like you've been disempowered or that someone has power over you and you can't be true to yourself, then what's actually happening is that you are choosing to avoid a potential bad consequence. That's a choice that you're making. You have to choose that for it to be the case.

Mandela had everything taken from him except his life. He was crushing rocks. He was beaten. It was not pretty for him and yet he stayed empowered. He continued to make choices and knew the choices that he was making despite the consequences.

Brett: How does that work in daily life? Like with a job or perhaps with a receiver of philanthropy, trying to become empowered, but finding that the moment they become empowered, they stop receiving gifts and so, it's easier not to.

Joe: Yes, it's really true. It's harder to raise money for something that's deeply empowered too, it's interesting that way. But then again, the people who truly feel empowered don't need to raise as much money. They have other ways of making things happen. Yes, it's a good question. How does it happen in daily life?

One of the ways that I work with my clients on this often that makes it really acute is-- and I mentioned it a bit in the beginning, but I'll use a different example. It's like a husband that's deeply unhappy in his marriage. I'll ask the question, what if you act exactly how you want to act and see if they leave you, see if the divorce occurs. That's an empowered act. It's like, "Oh, I'm not going to compromise my authenticity, my truth to keep your love. I'm not going to compromise my authenticity and my truth to keep the job. I'm not going to compromise my authenticity and my truth to avoid the conflict and that's when people feel disempowered is, when they don't make that choice. That's when people complain about somebody having power over them.

Brett: Right? Like believing that we're not going to be able to find another job, if we leave this job or believing we're never going to find another partner, if things don't work out with this one and we don't conform to this structure we're in.

Joe: Yes. Then that becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly when you're dealing with one-on-one relationships, but then when it comes to being in a company or being in a country or being part of a geopolitical system, it becomes a little bit harder to see, because the change that you're creating is just less palpable. It's because it's a numbers game and so it becomes harder for people to see in that way.

But that's an intellectual thing. On an emotional and a gut level, you feel it right away, you know it right away when you are acting empowered in those situations, say, "Oh, I'm going to be this way," and I see it all the time. It's like if you look at the people who are breaking the social norms in a way that is liberating for them, that are the front runners or the trailblazers, if you look at those folks, they are the ones who are not buying into the consequences.

Brett: It's contagious then like, if you're looking for a social change, it requires empowerment on a population level. It might feel from a disempowered place that if you're the only person who becomes empowered, you're just going to get steamrolled by the system. Yet, you look at examples like MLK and it's, one person was empowered enough to have like a halo around them, creating more empowerment.

Joe: Yes and he died. Right. There was somebody who had a gun and that's real power and it affected change. He had real power and it affected change. Both of the men who shot and the man who got shot in this particular case, both affected massive change in the world. The difference between the two is one felt empowered and one felt disempowered. The change that we affect when we feel disempowered usually doesn't serve ourselves or humanity.

Brett: Yes, that reminds me of the archetype of the rebel, somebody who feeling what they think is power, ends up destroying their life and others in the name of their truth. Whoever shot MLK felt like they were following their truth and you see this all the time. Let's talk about that.

Joe: Yes. It's really hard to see the difference sometimes, especially when you're in the middle of it and it's subtle until you see it and when you see it, it's clear. If you are in blame for another person or shame for yourself, then you are disempowered and you are trying to accumulate power. If you are not in blame or for others or shame for yourself, then that is empowered. That's the emotional way to know where you're at.

Brett: Or guilt I guess, guilt and shame can be distinguished as well a little bit.

Joe: Yes, guilt and shame. We'll put them together. Those are such-- semantically, that's a very interesting thing and it's very culturally based, but yes, guilt, shame, blame, all that stuff is a good indicator that you're disempowered.

Brett: Earlier we were talking about the drama triangle with the bully and the victim and the savior and how that's based in fear. Can you relate that to blame and shame?

Joe: Yes, so oftentimes, that fear is based on the sense of helplessness. That sense of helplessness is because we believe the story of blame and shame in our head. When you feel like someone else's making your life X, Y and Z way, then you're in blame and there's a helplessness and there's a fear that you will lose complete control and therefore, you need to have control over. Or, there's a shame, like, “I'm inherently bad.” There's no way out of that. It's a deep feeling of helplessness and we're scared of feeling that helplessness, so we then move into the drama triangle or the fear triangle. That's how it works. It's that helplessness is the feeling of that blame and shame felt all the way through, that we don't want to feel.

That's the amazing thing about feeling helplessness. Feeling helplessness doesn't make you more helpless. Feeling helpless makes you more capable. It's so counterintuitive, but if you do it, you know it, right, because so much of our decision-making process is based on trying to avoid an emotional state. The emotional state of helplessness is one of the ones underlying most of our avoidance.

Brett: What are some of the indicators for each of these particular roles? If all of them are fear state being set into place with blame and shame and we need to feel helplessness to get through them, what are some of the indicators for some of these particular roles of victim, bully and savior?

Joe: The reason I don't call the drama triangle very often and I'm more prone to call it the fear triangle is because, the victim, bully and savior correspond with fight, flight or freeze, which are the states of fear. Fight is pretty obviously bully. Right? It's like, when I'm scared, I fight. When I'm scared, I freeze, that's more victim. When I'm scared, I fly, that's savior and that's the harder one to understand. But what happens is, I run away from myself in my own experience and I try to fix you, so that I can feel safe. If I can make it so you don't get drunk, I'll feel safe. If I can make it, that you're happy, then I'll feel safe.

I'm running away from myself going into you to try to fix my issues and so, that's why I call it the fear triangle. There's a feeling for each one of them, right? It's kind of the indicator. The indicator is, if I am feeling all alone in it, that's the bully. If I feel obligation, that's the savior and if I feel stuck, that's the victim. In actuality, we'll feel all three of these things if you really slow it down for a minute and you'll notice that you'll feel all three of these things in a moment of fear.

My wife comes home, she's in a horrible mood and I feel helpless that now my mood is going to be screwed up and the house is going to be screwed up and the kids are going to be screwed like, “I can't do anything.” I might feel alone, like, "Oh, God, I can't. I'm the only one who has to fix this thing." Then I feel, "Oh my God, I got to do something for her so that she feels better and then I'm stuck with this thing." It's like all three of them can happen slowly or quickly. But there's one that usually we dominate in situations that are dominating us in situations. Most people tend towards fight, flight or freeze most of the time.

Brett: Yes, I personally tend towards the savior.

Joe: Yes, I have tended towards both savior and bully. Those are the two places I'll go depending on the circumstance. Yes and often in quick succession.

Brett: Let's talk a little bit more about how this works in companies and in teams.

Joe: It works in a number of ways. The first is, you see this happening all the time in companies and teams, that somebody is acting like the victim or some group is acting like the victim. Some are acting as the savior. There's different ways that they're trying to create control. The less empowered the team feels, the more drama and that's a great-- as soon as you walk into a team, if it's super political, it's just like everybody feels disempowered. You just know it. Where everybody feels empowered and they feel like they can affect change, there's so little politics that are going on. It's a great litmus test.

Brett: Right, because politics is a control mechanism.

Joe: Correct. Yes, it's that fear. Drama. That's the thing that you see in politics everywhere. I don't mean politics as in people running countries. I mean politics. It might be people running countries.

Brett: People being political.

Joe: Being political, right. It's a deep expression of fear and people trying to capture power. Exactly. It's because everybody feels helpless and feels like they're not actually able to affect change in a way that's meaningful.

Brett: How do you affect this kind of change in a company, whether you're leading the company or you're within the company or at the bottom of some ladder?

Joe: Yes. Well, this is the tricky bit, because as a leader of a company, you want your people to be empowered. You also, often out of fear, want to limit their capacity to affect change. I don't want the new mail clerk to decide what my initial public offering price is going to be. It's this constant balance of people feeling empowered. You wanting people to feel empowered and at the same time, a fear of having that power runaway or this lack of control. This is the balance and the subtle war that's happening oftentimes with leaders.

You'll hear it all the time because they'll say something like, "I wish everybody would act like the owner of the company." They mean that to a point, meaning they want everyone to take responsibility like that, but they don't want everybody to have all the benefits and they don't want everybody to have all the choice that they have. There's this very interesting balance that happens. What's happening in those companies is that the empowerment and the roles have gotten confused.

If everybody can feel empowered in their role and their role is defined and how decisions are made is defined, then people feeling deeply empowered is incredibly good for a company. As soon as those roles aren't defined well, as soon as people don't know what they have to do to be successful, then a whole bunch of empowered people just creates a lot of mess.

Brett: It sounds like there's a bit of a paradox here, where having well-defined roles and well-defined processes is structure and that could be something that people feel has power over them. Then also what you want is them to feel empowered to push back and change that structure or work fully within the structure and also perhaps challenge it. If you don't have structure like clear goals, criteria for success, loving accountability, transparency, then what happens there? There's a powerlessness in having no structure.

Joe: That's right. Yes, if there's no way to affect change or make decisions, then what you'll have is this crazy politics with people trying to get power so that they can feel safe. Yes, you want to have some sort of structure that allows itself to change and a structure that doesn't change without very specific things happening, so that people can feel safe that they know what to do, that they know what success means.

This doesn't matter if it's AA or Enron. In AA, there's a very particular structure that has to happen. There's 12 steps. There's the way that the meetings get run and that structure happens. It's important or people can't feel safe in those environments. In Uber, there's very particular structures in place. There's, "I'm going to rate you five stars or not," and there's another structure of making sure that drivers don't rip other people off by tracking them on maps. Those structures are really incredibly critical or people don't feel safe.

Will those structures need to change over time? Absolutely. But, you need the structure for people to feel safe and know what their roles are. Then you need to be able to make room for people to grow and change their roles. The Constitution of the United States does a pretty good job of it, too.

Brett: Yes, sets a structure.

Joe: Yes. That's the balance that you're constantly looking for is, “How I create the amount of structure that makes people feel safe but also gives them autonomy and gives them the capacity to feel as empowered as possible.”

Brett: Includes mechanisms for that structure itself to be updated to match reality.

Joe: Absolutely. Right, that's it. That's how looking at company-- and what you see typically is, the more transparency and the less structure that creates safety, the more elegant the structure is that creates safety, then the more successful the company. Taxi cabs becoming Uber is an example of this, less structure, less infrastructure, but it creates actually more safety.

It's the same thing that happened with GM and Toyota. Toyota became more decentralized than GM, which was at the time, the most centralized company. That decentralization, but still maintaining the structure, is what usually gives those companies a competitive advantage. The reason is, because it creates more empowerment with the employees.

Brett: It seems like this would also promote scalability for a company, because if you have 100 empowered decision-makers instead of three, then more decisions can be made and more information can be processed.

Joe: That's exactly right. Yes. You saw that there was a-- I can't remember, it was one of the Malcolm Gladwell books talked about, how in this war game that the Pentagon does, this small band of people beat the US Army, because their decision-making was happening at the bottom. There was some set of principles, some set of structure that they could all operate within. That's basically how you do it. It was in David and Goliath, was I think his book. You see that all the time and you see it in business books as well, like Reinventing Organizations, where the same principle is there.

Brett: Yes, another war game example, just war example, would be when Rommel first encountered US troops in Northern Africa. He was like, "Oh, these guys are totally green and completely disorganized. It'll be a cinch." Then, not long after, he was writing letters back to Germany like, "Wait, don't underestimate these people. You can cut off an entire unit from their command and somehow, they'll still figure out how to fight."

Joe: But this isn't just an external thing. This is an internal thing as well. When you become more empowered, you start operating on a set of principles and that set of principles, you're going to operate on whether it's comfortable or not. If I have a principle that basically says, "I am not going to work with assholes," and somebody says, "Here's a billion dollars to work with an asshole," I'm going to say, "No." It's a set of principles.  I'm not going to operate any differently than that. If I have a set of principles and it's like, I'm going to be transparent with people and tell them my truth despite the consequences, that's my set of principles. I'm going to do it no matter what.

That's when all the drama in me starts disappearing. That's when I feel empowered is, I've given myself a structure that it doesn't change very readily. It takes some time to change that set of principles, but I'm going to operate in that way no matter what. That helps me feel deeply empowered, which is strange. It's like a set of criteria that I live by  that actually makes me feel empowered.

Brett: Yes, as though this entire process of inquiry into values is to create a more and more consolidated, elegant structure by which we live our lives, so that we don't have to think about the complicated consequences and how the consequences are going to play out of, “What if I say this to my boss? Or speak my truth here or leave this job?” It's just, this is simply how I want to live and I'll accept the consequences if that's what it takes.

Joe: That's exactly right. Yes, that set of principles is what frees us. If you look around at the people who you just saw like,  “Holy crap, they didn't have resources, but they were empowered and they changed the world.” That's something else they all have in common. They were living by a set of principles internally and externally. Not perfectly,  obviously. We're humans. We are not made perfect, but it's generally how one lives their life. When you see somebody who's living by a set of principles, you'll also notice that they never are blaming other folks. They're never worried about somebody's power over them. They're addressing it.

Brett: That also will affect your opportunities as well. When I'm hiring, I'm much more interested in the resourcefulness and the ownership, the self-ownership of the person rather than the skills listed on their resume. People really detect that in any counterpart that they might work with.

Joe: That's right, I'd rather pick the right mentality than the right skillset, for sure. I obviously like to pick both when I can, but yes, that's right. This is what happens internally, like I said, as well as externally, the drama internally goes away when we feel empowered internally, when we don't feel that we will make the choice even if it's uncomfortable. Even if I have to feel helpless, I'm going to make that choice. Even if I have to-- I'm not going to have power over somebody else or try to have power over myself.

I will rather feel the discomfort of the fear and the helplessness. I'll rather enter into the shame. I would rather allow my own destruction as far as the destruction of my identity, my identity as one who's put upon or my identity as one who's valuable. I'd rather allow that to be destroyed, rather than move into fear and act from fear and try to have control over somebody. It's an internal and an external thing. When you figure it out internally, you have no choice but to act externally. If you feel like you are subjugated by something externally, then you also feel like you're subjugated by something internally.

Brett: That sounds like a great point to wrap this up on. Thank you very much, Joe.

Joe: Yes. Pleasure, Brett. Thank you very much.

Thanks for listening to The Art of Accomplishment podcast.  If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe. We would love your feedback, so feel free to send us questions and comments. To reach us, join our newsletter, learn more about VIEW, or to take a course, visit:


Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations,

Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants

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