Why Power is the Only Metric That Matters

Written by Lisa Hrabluk

Best-selling author. Award-winning journalist. Purpose-led entrepreneur. Find me hanging out where culture, people and ideas collide.

March 4, 2023

There was a time when I could stop a conversation dead just by walking into a room. 

A friend told me they used to know I was nearby when the energy in the room shifted. They’d watch cabinet ministers, political staff and lobbyists cast a glance in my direction and then scan the room, looking to see who was watching me and who had caught my eye.  That’s power, and I, a 30-something daily newspaper columnist, had it.  

I remember the moment I shifted from respected journalist to media power player. It was a Thursday, and I had been writing my column for all of four days. The day before, I’d suggested the then-premier may be regretting his promise to hold a referendum to keep video lottery terminals (VLTs). 

Twenty-four hours later, on that Thursday night, the premier gave a significant speech to a room of the province’s power players, and he referenced an unnamed column that claimed he wanted to break a promise. He denied it, but in the room that night, something shifted; politicians didn’t usually publicly acknowledge, let alone chastise, newspaper columnists. 

After that, three things happened. 

First, the newspaper started promoting my column on billboards and above the front-page banner to drive readership. Second, political and business operatives started calling me to chat and invite me to events journalists don’t usually get access to, deepening my network and sources of information. Third, the premier held the referendum, stayed out of the debate, and voters narrowly decided to keep VLTs. 

I was a columnist for five adrenalin-fueled, career-defining years during which I wrote over 1,200 opinion pieces and learned a lot about power, who has it, where it goes and how it makes us move. 

Here’s what I know. 

  1. Power is intelligent. People who can hold power all share one important trait: they know how to source, fact-check and use information, leadership’s most reliable fuel. That’s why power players in business and politics sought me out; I was a great source of information to them, as much as they were to me. That exchange of information benefitted both of us. However, it’s not enough to simply collect information, you also need to be able to quickly determine its veracity. How much do you trust the source, and how much does the source trust the information they are sharing? That’s the difference between idle gossip and intelligence gathering; the former shares unverified information, often to shock, laugh or denigrate, while the latter is an exchange where both parties gain knowledge. The former is mindless, the latter is mindful.  
  2. Power moves in four ways: it expands, shrinks, stalls, and holds steady. We’ve all seen those annual power lists that measure who’s up and who’s down, a measurement of people gaining power and of people losing it. That can be fun to read, but too much movement can be a bad thing because it points to volatility within a system. That’s an important indicator, but it doesn’t paint the full picture when we are trying to understand how to drive change. There are two other ways in which power moves that I watch closely to determine if and when change might happen: stalled and steady power. You know power is stalled anytime a major issue appears stuck. A great example of stalled power in Canada is our decades-long inability to figure out a faster way to recognize foreign-trained health professionals’ credentials. Why is it taking so long? Because the issue involves several vested interests, most notably provincial governments, which pay doctors and nurses, and the independent licensing boards, which license them. Both want something from the other, but neither will budge, leaving the power to solve the issue perpetually stalled. It’s the worst type of power because it drains people’s energy and diminishes hope. The best type of power is steady. People understand it, and so they trust it. It’s open and transparent, so vested interests are converted to reliable partners. It has ready access to resources, such as money, people, information and ideas, so it is scalable. Steady power is shared power.  
  3. Power is a prerequisite for change. In my career, I have held both power and influence, and while we often use these words together, they produce different results. Influence, in the language of political science, is soft power. It attracts and co-opts by appealing to our hearts and minds. It’s the world of the arts, diplomacy and friendship. It moves us through charm and attraction; we change because we are ready and eager. However, soft power rarely transforms us. That kind of change requires a lot more force. The kind of force exerted by hard power, that version of statecraft that uses incentives (the carrot) and coercion (the stick) to get what it wants. Shall it be a carbon tax at the gas station or a tax rebate for electric vehicles? Are you going to enforce your kids’ curfew or not? We easily recognize and name hard power when it is exercised by the state, but we can be uncomfortable recognizing and naming it in ourselves. That’s a problem if you’re trying to drive systems change because you can’t direct what you are uncomfortable to claim. 

Say its name.  

Power. Hard power. 

To change your world you need to be comfortable with holding carrots and sticks. 

With claiming power that gets called out and called up. 

Power that prefers to collaborate but isn’t afraid to coerce. 

Power that gets you in the rooms where it happens, not stuck in the lobby waiting for change to come. 

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