Is the Love of 'Power' the Root of All Evil?

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Does raw ambition account for personal style differences, or is it something deeper -- something about the way we are put together? Is having a thirst for power really all that bad? Perhaps we should examine the motivation behind it.

Motives are defined by behavioral scientists as "natural incentives that drive daily behavior." Natural incentives may include: Achievement, recognition, or deepening relationships. Money is not a "natural incentive," and thus, is not considered a motive. Power, however, is a motive -- a particularly interesting one.

The defining characteristic of those with a high need for power, or the theorists' term nPow, is the strong desire to have an impact on others -- the bigger, the better. Even in small children, we can see early manifestations of a power orientation: "Look at me, look me, everybody, look at me!" Or, maybe with one of your children, you don't have to guess what she's thinking; you always know because she tells you. Then, there is the child who jumps out of the closet to scare brothers and sisters, or one who enjoys teasing mom. It's fun to upset others.

Power can be good. As adults, individuals with heightened nPow enjoy organizing others, teaching and coaching, and being philanthropic.

High-power professions include: Teaching, consulting, speaking, writing and acting. Successful trial lawyers have heightened nPow (estate attorneys do not), so do politicians, Little League coaches and corporate executives. Outstanding performance in these professions requires a strong "power" motive.

Successful executives feel good when they stand in front of people and take charge. They like defining how work will be done, they balance empowerment and control and they are comfortable firing people who do not meet standards.

In contrast, a sales executive low nPow is less comfortable teaching, delegating and following-up. He finds it easier to close the sale himself and forgive those who miss quota. But in attempting to be nice, he inadvertently creates a revolt among team members who wonder why he is doing their job and why he tolerates laggards.

Power can be bad. That little girl who yelled, "Look at me!" grows up to be a business woman who adorns herself with symbols of power: Jewelry, cars, houses, trips and fresh flowers.

Then there is the guy at work who asks to be called Dr. Smith and adds a string of professional certifications to his business card. You know him. He's the one with his alma mater's name on his back windshield. It's fun to impress.

People with elevated nPow are keenly aware of their place in the social hierarchy. It's not unlike the animal hierarchies in NatGeo documentaries. Like animals, those with a high nPow respect power position of others. But they choose friends who are lower in the social hierarchy and less likely to compete for prestige.

Research shows that those with strong nPow typically have a negative self-image. Men describe themselves as aggressive, coarse, disorderly, high strung, rebellious and resentful. Women describe themselves as cynical, complicated, disorderly, self-pitying and resentful. Both genders report more emotional problems, stress-related health problems and addictions. It's stressful always playing the lead role.

Advice for Those With an Elevated Need for Power

If you have a raised nPow, a first step is to understand the power motive. This will help you make sense of your behavior, then learn to control your bad impulses. It all starts with making a conscious effort. For example:

Stop trying to control social interactions. Replace declarative statements with questions. Don't try to one-up everyone's story. Don't interrupt and don't wrest control by changing the topic. And don't use "I" when you mean "we."

Stop competing. The world is not a zero-sum game. Be genuinely happy for those who succeed -- especially your team mates. Stop incessantly looking for faults in others -- look for the good. Fault finding never ends well.

Stop trying to impress. Look back at your Facebook posts and Christmas cards. Do you have a problem?

Stop sucking up. Everyone notices and everyone talks about it; and their comments are not good. Allying with high-level people can protect you temporarily, but as any history teacher will tell you, when you create enough enemies, you will fall. And that fall often happens quickly. Ask Anthony Weiner.

Advice for Those Who Work With a High-Power Boss

No, you can't change your boss' power motive. Your boss -- and you -- are who you are. But if you are wise, you can help your boss, and yourself, be more successful.

Know what's going on. Information is power. Knowing what's really going on provides power to you and to your boss.

Listen. Listening is important for every interaction, but it's particularly important for those with a strong point of view.

Let it be his idea. Use the boss' ideas and words. Words matter. If the boss wants his people to think "outside in," then use those words again and again in your communications.

Leave a few open holes in your proposals. The more you tighten to logic, the less opportunity there is for your boss to exert influence. Leave a few holes, "I'm not sure about this; I'd like your advice ..."

Be impressed. It's not so hard to do and it frees you to get on with the real work.

Society needs strong leaders, speakers and coaches and not everyone wants to play those roles. We need people who are motivated by power. But balancing the good with the bad is not easy. The first step is to understand, then strengthen the good and inhibit the bad.

So, take heart when your son annoys his sister by hiding in the closet and yelling "Boo!" You just might be raising a next-generation CEO.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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