What You Want

“No one is afraid of Caesar himself, but he is afraid of death, exile, loss of property, prison, disfranchisement. Nor does anyone love Caesar himself, unless in some way Caesar is a person of great merit; but we love wealth, a tribuneship, a praetorship, a consulship. When we love and hate and fear these things, it needs must be that those who control them are masters over us” (Epictetus in Burns, 2007, p. 196).

Pascal (in Burns, 2007) defined power as “the possession of things that men want.” Whether that be resources, notoriety, or freedom from punishment, whoever holds these objects of desire holds power over those who want them. A ruler might have power to coerce subjects to do his will because he has control over the satisfaction of their physical needs, but there is a limit to the power of coercion. Followers have their own set of wants and needs that, when they go unfulfilled by their leadership, cause a conflict of resources and motivate people to protest.

In a normal leader-follower relationship, both sides have their own motivations and resources which balance each other out

(Burns, 2007). “The more that the interplay of motives, rather than brute physical power, dominates the relationship, the more the ruler is acting as a leader and the subjects are acting as empowered followers, as citizens” (Burns, 2007, p. 196).

In the workplace, the company offers an employee some variation of stability, income, purpose, and comradeship. Each employee might be motivated by a difference resource offered and when their need either changes or is no longer being satisfied, then they are motivated to leave the company. In a company with toxic leadership, an employee might be coerced to perform unethically because they need the resources which leadership is offering. If the cognitive dissonance becomes strong enough, then the employee’s motivation to leave will overpower their motivation to stay for the resources.

In my own leadership roles, I hope to remember that “power is a gift to the powerful by those over whom the power may be exercised, who recognize the power as legitimate” (Burns, 2007, p. 195). In other words, my leadership will only be made possible by the people who will have chosen to follow me.

I was reading about William Wilberforce this week, particularly about his campaign to reform the moral character of England, and I was impressed by the fact that he could change the actions of the aristocracy by “making goodness fashionable” (Pollock, 1996). He recognized their motivation to stay trendy and ‘with the times,’ so he changed the definition of what was fashionable. The success of this endeavor proved that influencing the attitudes and desires of people is often more powerful than the enactment of a law (Goodwin, 2006).

Coercion will only get a ruler so far. A healthy balance between motivations and resources, along with the acknowledgement that the leader is only in power by the consent of the followers, will allow for a strong position of leadership.



  1. Burns, James MacGregor (2007-12-01). Transforming Leadership. Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
  2. Goodwin, D. K. (2006). Team of rivals: The political genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  3. Pollock, John. (1996) “A man who changed his times” in Character counts: Leadership qualities in Washington, Wilberforce, Lincoln and Solzhenitsyn. Os Guinness (Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.


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