Power and humility

In our daily lives there are people who have a certain amount of power over us (our employer, landlady, teacher) and people over whom we hold positions of relative power (our children, employees, students). To maximise social happiness, power must be used wisely and with humility.

I remember one work situation where my boss started giving me advice about how to live my life. Her advice was kind and well meant, but totally inappropriate for me. Having authority over me in the workplace, she had crossed the line into thinking she had authority over my life decisions and finances. Because of her position, it was difficult to challenge her without compromising our working relationship. This was a valuable lesson for me when I became a manager myself. No matter how I much might think I know better than a member of staff, I need to be careful not to put them in a position where they feel they have to agree with me.

In an even more dramatic situation, I once worked in a large organisation where the boss had so much power that she seemed to think she was godlike. She once took me aside for a private talk in which she told me that my first loyalty should be to my employer (meaning that I shouldn’t speak up if I disagreed with her). My personal belief was that my first loyalties should be to myself, my values, my professional code of ethics and my clients, before my employer. I think any decent employer would agree with that list of priorities. My sense was that this person saw herself as a cult leader and anyone who didn’t idolise her was perceived as dangerous. This is at odds with good employment practice, which should welcome healthy debate and actively recruit the opinions of professionals and workers.

Everywhere we see people abusing what little power they have as a way of making themselves feel big. But with humility we can instead see positions of authority as a chance to serve our fellow human beings. People love being treated with respect and a good boss or teacher provides a wonderful role model to keep the circle of happiness going.

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