Is Personal Power a Good Thing?

In less than two weeks President-elect Barack Obama will get a lot more of something he already has -- plenty of personal power.

Scholars who have studied how power is acquired, used and sometimes lost are watching that date with some trepidation and some excitement. Without the power to excite the electorate, he could not have won the election. But now he is about to assume the mantle of the U.S. presidency, making him arguably the most powerful man in the world.

Will his personal power that we have seen him exercise so skillfully during the last two years serve him well in his wider role? After all, power corrupts, right? Isn't that much power likely to make him arrogant, following his own course regardless of the advice he's surely going to get from a cabinet of rivals?

Very unlikely, according to Adam Galinsky, a professor of ethics in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Galinsky is the lead author of a recent study showing that power frees a person to listen to others without abandoning a personal vision. Power also increases creativity and makes it easier to ignore bad advice, even if it comes from a "very important person," Galinsky said in a telephone interview. And it doesn't necessarily corrupt.

Obama's personal sense of power, Galinsky said, "is going to allow him to have that secure confidence where he's not going to be too rigid, or too easily swayed, by the opinions of others. He might be able to chart a course that can somehow navigate those two extremes that can take down presidents."

Where Does Power Come From?

But where did he get that sense of power? Several sources.

"Obama has a level of charisma, a really hard thing to define. Charisma is that ethereal feeling you get in the presence of another person who inspires you," Galinsky said. "He clearly has that. He has immense capacity for self-reflection [as shown in his book about his father] and having gone through that period of self-reflection, which was clearly a very difficult part of his life, emerged with a kind of serene self-confidence."

"Another source of his personal power is his self-confidence doesn't come across as arrogance."

Galinsky's recent study, co-authored by researchers at four other universities and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was based on five experiments that revealed personal power enables a person to think more clearly and creatively than persons who do not have that sense of power.

But what is power? Definitions abound.

"Power is ultimately about control of resources," said Joe Magee, an assistant professor of management at New York University-Wagner and a co-author of the study. Or as one common definition puts it, power is the ability to influence others.

"In this case, it's people's trust in him that he's not going to betray them in some way that makes Obama a pretty unique powerful figure," Magee said in a telephone interview.

We know how Obama used his power to win votes, but we don't know yet how he will use the formal power that will soon become his.

"It's going to be revealed starting on Jan. 20," Magee said. "Some people are worried, others are excited."

Magee, a specialist in "organizational behavior," said he personally is "excited because the track record I see suggests he's someone who's motivated to try to make society a better place."

That's a big factor in evaluating personal power. Some people want power for their own advancement. Some people want power to help society as a whole. Some, if not all, want some of both. Some people are secure in their power and others are less secure. Obama, Galinsky said, seems very secure.

"That type of serene self-confidence can become a ballast and guide you through rocky waters, but it can also become something that ties you down and anchors you so that the waves crash over you," Galinsky said. Like Magee, Galinsky believes Obama is probably going to fare well, listening to advice but not yielding too easily.

At least that's what their latest study suggests.

The study, involving several hundred students at various universities, was based on the well-established idea that someone can be made to feel powerful, at least temporarily, by either word association or recalling a time in their lives when they felt powerful. Even power, it seems, can be fleeting.

"A powerful CEO could have lots of power in one domain and then go home to a low power position," Galinsky said. A spouse may not be all that impressed by someone who left dirty socks on the floor, even if he or she is a big shot at work.

In the studies, some participants were "manipulated" to feel powerful, and others were not. The experiments revealed that "powerful" participants were more creative, and less influenced by the views of others, than those who were not made to feel powerful.

"We have demonstrated how the experience of power liberates individuals from the straightjacket of the social world, allowing them to define for themselves what is and is not achievable," the study concludes. "Although power is often thought of as a pernicious force that corrupts those who possess it, it is the protection from situational influence demonstrated here that helps powerful individuals surmount social obstacles and reach greater heights of creativity to express the unpopular ideals of today that can lead others to the horizons of tomorrow."

It is a personal sense of power, and the self-confidence that it brings, that allows a leader to follow the good advice and ignore the bad, and reach out of the box for bold and creative ideas.

"And creativity," Galinsky said, "is one of the most important things in the world. Innovation is really the driver of human progress." A leader who feels powerless is not likely to venture into the unknown, allowing creativity to flourish.

Is Obama up to the task?

We're about to find out.