Some years ago, a batch of trigger-happy policemen patrolled the streets of Lagos. Upon being given guns, the power of life and death in the pull of a trigger, they turned from protector to aggressor. Raising their guns for everyone to see, they would extract huge sums from a driver before allowing the vehicle to continue on its journey. Some drivers refused to stop and warning shots were fired into the big blue sky. Some drivers still refused to stop and shots were fired at the vehicles. Innocents were killed, passengers (whose families were expecting them at home) failed to return.
This is what we usually think about when we think about power. We do not think of Mahatma Ghandi but of people becoming “dark” like comic villains, rotten like bad eggs, people with dark mind-blowing secrets and hidden agendas.
In the bestseller, the 48 laws of power, some of the laws listed by Robert Greene include:
Law 3 – Conceal your intentions.
Law 7 – Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit
Law 12 – Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victim.
Law 14 – Pose as a friend, work as a spy.
Law 15 – Crush your enemy totally.
We get a feeling from this that obtaining and maintaining power is bad; evil. This is the ingrained belief in many of us. The truth, basic as it seems, is that we react to power like we react to a mosquito biting our arm. Instinctively; we raise our hand and swat at it. You’re put in a situation and you react to it the best way you know how. It is true that some go bad upon tasting power but this can apply to virtually any situation. The novel situation is probing a side of you that has never been tried before and this is what people see as a change in character.
Recently, a man complained that his calm, kind and loving wife was a cursing, loud, brash woman when she spoke her native language. Speaking English, she was a saint. Speaking another language she was different. How could she be two people?
In the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, researcher Michele Koven carried out tests on bilingual Parisian adults whose parents were from Portugal. She found that the language one spoke had an effect on the person’s personality. One of her research subjects was “an angry, hip suburbanite” when she spoke French, but she became a “frustrated, but patient, well-mannered bank customer” when she spoke Portuguese. Speaking in different languages creates a mental shift. The difference in the culture and overall vocabulary propel this mental shift.
In the same vein, let’s say I give you a million dollars or you win the lottery. I can bet that you’re going to buy something huge, do something huge, something big. You’ll probably go out this night to paint the town red. The rise in your financial status means you’ll want to live according to your new lifestyle. You’ll hang out in new places, meet some new people, hear new ideas and you’ll change accordingly. An increase or change in financial circumstances causes this. It is called lifestyle inflation.
Power does the same to us. There is an inflated sense of worth that comes with the increased ability to get your words heard and to have people obey you. But it isn’t just power that does this to us. Or rather, we find power in different things. We’re powerful in different ways. As in the previous example, an increase in our earnings can cause us to feel more powerful. Beauty, education, having a child, buying a new house or car, or simply being happy can induce a feeling of power. There is power in everything. The power of education, for one, causes a shift in our mentality. Getting educated and trained to become a doctor puts you in a different situation from the one you were in years ago when you didn’t have that qualification and when you might have had no job. Getting married can do this too.
A man might see the need to buy flowers every day when courting a woman. He might open doors for her and be a perfect gentleman. But once he’s gotten her and she’s his wife, he might change. As a woman, I must say that we detest this type of change and hope it doesn’t happen. Yet, we should understand why it happens so often.
Abraham Lincoln said “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
Tests in the educational settings are those dreaded things that students have to undergo in order to show that they’ve learnt something. Or in other words, tests are a revelation. They reveal how much the student has learnt following the teacher’s impartation of knowledge. Nonetheless, we’re only seeing a different side of the student after something has happened, in this case learning.
Power tests our character. Yes. But it no more tests us than moving to another country or getting married can test us. There is nothing special about power’s ability to do so. Get married and you’re in for one hell of a test. Move from Europe to a village in India and you’ll see different things, see things differently and be tested in new ways. Different circumstances test us and reveal different sides of our character. Just like the woman who was a different person depending on the language she spoke, like the way you might act if you won the lottery, like the way someone who was once illiterate might act upon receiving the bulb of enlightenment. Power doesn’t change us merely because we feel stronger, wiser, or richer but because a change in circumstances calls for a change of attitude.
Power is a circumstance and so it tests us. However, it is not something exclusive to power. Even adversity tests us. And if, as President Abe said, most men can overcome adversity then with due respect, I would like to state that most men can overcome power, that although changes are bound to be seen in them, they can keep their heads and their basic character when put in positions of power.
More power to you.