What does power mean?

Ask the average man or woman on the street or the dictionary on your shelf and you'll probably get an answer like: the ability to do what you want without interference, and/ or the ability to get other people to do what you want.

Which sounds useful (and to some ears perhaps pleasant) but doesn't sound, well, nice. We might respect the powerful--we might even want to become powerful ourselves for more or less philanthropic aims--but rarely do we think of powerful people as the least selfish or most humane folks among us.

Power comes from helping others

That's a mistake, according to Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley professor, author, and expert on power, who has studied the concept for decades in groups ranging from sororities to summer camps. Power isn't something people take from others, he writes in a recent post for the Greater Good Science Center, it's something others give us.

"Whereas the Machiavellian approach to power assumes that individuals grab it through coercive force, strategic deception, and the undermining of others, the science finds that power is not grabbed but is given to individuals by groups," Keltner writes. "Your ability to make a difference in the world--your power, as I define it--is shaped by what other people think of you."

In short, Keltner argues that the way people actually become powerful in the real world is by serving others and earning their trust. Niceness isn't antithetical to power, it's the foundation of the concept.

"Your capacity to alter the state of others depends on their trust in you. Your ability to empower others depends on their willingness to be influenced by you. Your power is constructed in the judgments and actions of others. When they grant you power, they increase your ability to make their lives better--or worse," he insists.

Yes, power can corrupt.

But just because power starts with service and pro-social behavior doesn't mean it ends that way. Keltner doesn't disagree with the popular conception of power entirely--it absolutely can corrupt, he concedes.

Power is intoxicating and reduces perceptions of risk, the research confirms. That can go one of two ways, Keltner writes: "toward the abuse of power and impulsive and unethical actions, or toward benevolent behavior that advances the greater good."

That's the bad (if old) news. The good news is those who choose to wield their power for good tend to survive longer at the top. "In my experiments, individuals who were kind and focused on others enjoyed enduring power in schools, workplaces, and military units, avoiding the fall from power that is so common in human social life," Keltner notes.

He goes on to offer suggestions for leaders to ensure that they stay focused on the needs of others while exercising power, which are well worth checking out for those currently in positions of power. But for those still looking to build their influence, Keltner's first point is probably more relevant: If you want others to follow you, think less about you and more about them. Power, science confirms, is all about being useful to others.