I often find that good novel writers seem to have the innate ability to grasp complex aspects of human nature and render them in intricate and frequently gripping storytelling. Whereas social scientists, having spent much money and time conducting research (novel writers do research as well, albeit in much less sterile conditions), sifting through and analyzing mounds of data, participating in debates and discussions, then produce these dry-dry-dry research papers. Of course, it is not fair to compare two completely different genres, but it does make one wonder.
This isn’t my topic today!
Today I write regarding J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. Many interesting discussions of power in these pages can be applied to the study of organizations and management.
I warn you: My imagination and writing cannot come even close to Ms. Rowling’s magic. But I’ll try not to be too dry and boring. And if you haven’t bothered with Rowling’s work already, today’s musing may not appeal to you.
Different situations call for different leadership styles, and so it is with the use of power. Some people are intrinsically hungry for power and others use power only when confronted by situations. I won’t go into the psychology of why some are power hungry – I think we all have theories based on our daily encounters – but I assume that most of us exercise power at one point or another throughout our lives.
Extreme Power Display is Uni-directional and Uni-dimensional
One of the first things that struck me about Lord Voldemort’s power trip is that it is fairly one-dimensional, like a lot of villains in both fictitious and real worlds. They just desire it, and a LOT of it, and all for themselves. Total Power = Total Control. We see it in Voldemort, in Sauron in the Lord of the Rings, in Hitler, in Mao Zedong, etc. Have you ever wondered what would these monsters do when they actually got all those powers? Just how much more destructive could one enjoy being? How many murders would satisfy them? How much material would satiate them? What do they want next? Perhaps it is because their hunger is so great that their continuous desire to exhibit their power makes them seem one-dimensional, even though the paths by which they have acquired their power are varied and fascinating because these paths are inevitably sordid. (We do like sordid stories!)
What all of these super villains share is the base of their power: fear. As much as Voldemort’s hunger for power is insatiable, so also is the fear he engendered in both his followers and innocent bystanders. This is not to say that Harry, Hermione, and Ron weren’t afraid of him, but their fear was specifically targeted and manageable. Innocent bystanders couldn’t grapple with their fear; they didn’t know where the fear resided and they didn’t possess the knowledge or the means with which to defend themselves and others. The unknown and the uncertainty paralyzed them, to the point of not even daring to refer him by his proper name. And how about Voldemort’s followers, all the Death Eaters? While they themselves were powerful, their boss was much more powerful. What’s more, they also desired to have more and more power, and “reasoned” that only by following Voldemort would they get more. Insatiability can turn a person inside out. But ironically, the Voldemort type of fear-based power is all about him; he was the only beneficiary and he would never share significant power with “his” Death Eaters.
Secrecy-based power is a close cousin of fear-based power: However, it depends on what you do with the secrets.
The Dursleys’ biggest secret was also their biggest fear; that they had witches and wizards for relatives. Their secret became all consuming: It dictated their conforming behavior and it gave them justification for controlling Harry Potter. If Harry and his mother were not in the Dursleys’ lives, the Dursleys might have demonstrated their controlling behavior in other manners; they might still want to conform (to whatever standards they deemed “right”), but their motivation might not have been as strong and their bad behavior might have been tempered. Not Harry’s nor his mother’s fault, but it was these relationships from which the need for secrecy became the driving force for the Dursleys.
But Dumbledore also kept secrets from Harry too, so why wasn’t he as remotely obnoxious to Harry as the Dursleys? For one major difference, Dumbledore didn’t need to keep the secret to preserve his power. Yes, occasionally, Harry was mad at Dumbledore for not confiding in him. But Dumbledore was a skillful teacher and sometimes, teachers have to be manipulative. After all, it is much easier to just catch that damn fish and feed it to the student, yes? To impart skills into another human being, to ignite interest in acquiring those skills in the same human being, and to stand aside so that the person learning the skills can take the time to absorb the lessons, all require a subtle play of offering and withholding information (i.e. secrets). Not unlike fishing. With Dumbledore, the boundary between withholding and offering evolved with Harry’s gradual awakening. With the Dursleys, there was only withholding; they saw deprivation as their only weapon. Dumbledore’s use of deprivation was a means to lead Harry to the places where he could gain his own insight.
Then, there is the purely bully power.Bully power is embodied in Draco Malfoy and his cronies. Of course, one could argue that Voldemort was a bully too; after all, a bully strikes fear in the victim. However, Voldemort was extremely skillful and intelligent in applying his skills to manipulate, to strike, to conquer. He would be more like Dumbledore than he was like Draco. The bully relies only on brute power, sheer mean spirit and strength. Where Draco lacked the strength, he made up with his two bulky minions. Draco also had no qualms about using his family’s history for bragging points. Generally, there are strategies behind villains’ use of fear to gain power; bullies simply enjoy beating up others, mentally and physically, and their satisfaction is immediate and transient. One can avoid bullies for periods of time; one might also out-maneuver bullies. But fear-based power can sustain its grip on people even in the physical absence of the person wielding such power.
Draco’s character was largely annoying and obnoxious, but he gained more interesting notice later on as he attempted to use cunning to gain attention. He didn’t strike me as desiring a lot of power then, but certainly a lot of attention.
Dudley Dursley was an even more pure bully than Malfoy; no thought accompanied his nasty behavior toward Harry. He was parroting his parents. Harry was not happy living with these people, but he was not afraid of them; rather, he viewed them as pathetic and a joke. Harry almost never saw himself as a victim.
Vacuity-based power!! Imagine that!
Who can forget the empty-headed, celebrity-seeking, self-glorifying but good-looking Gilderoy Lockhart, the Defense-Against-Dark-Arts teacher? Or, the poison-pen reporter, Rita Skeeter? who had no trouble using innuendo to create a different sort of vacuum into which people could insert their own imagined stories? So, flashy appearances can be powerful too; flash may not last long, but often causes damage that can last longer than do the persons using such power. However, if followers weren’t blinded by the flash, these people wouldn’t be able to wield such power. So, while the person possessing the power may be vacuous, s/he does have to know how to read the (potential) followers’ desires.
Trust-based power engenders respect and growth in others.
This of course was largely embodied by Dumbledore, not just toward Harry, but toward all the other people around him, including the seemingly sneaky Snape, the occasional bumbling Hagrid, and many others. Longbottom’s courage grew with the series but was first recognized by Dumbledore for his standing up to Harry, Hermione, and Ron in the first book of the series. Dumbledore was the epitome of Appreciative Inquiry, always seeing the positive sides of a person and giving them plenty room to grow into and develop those strengths. While Appreciative Inquiry might strike some as a bit too saccharine (it isn’t; that’s likely to be our cynical side giving such a descriptor), Dumbledore never wavered in his commitment to fight against the Dark Lord.
I always felt that Dumbledore’s fight against the evil figures in the books was never mean-spirited, gloriously rendered, spectacularly exhibited, or greatly publicized (by himself). Yes, he was manipulative, but he was fallible, and was the first one to recognize his own dark side. It was precisely his recognition of his ambition for power that decided him never to take the “Ministry of Magic” job.
In contrast, Voldemort could never understand the principle of trust (nor love). When Malfoy Senior and Bellatrix “let him down” by “allowing” Harry and his friends to escape, his reaction was, “their stupidity and carelessness prove how unwise it is ever to trust,” thereby assuring that his followers would never “grow” under him; his followers could only at best not repeat the same mistakes. Of course, if a villain could understand trust and even embrace it, s/he wouldn’t be a villain in the first place.
Power Sharing/Situational Power display: The triumvirate’s accidental and reluctant show of powers
At first glace, the power bases of our three heroes, Harry, Ron, & Hermione, were straightforward: Harry’s in his courage, Hermione’s in her book knowledge, and Ron’s in …comic relief? It’s easy to dismiss Ron’s importance, but his trust in the friendships with the other two, and theirs in him, was the solid foundation for Harry to be ever more courageous. Harry wasn’t spectacularly brilliant; he was smart, enough to grasp the nuances of life, but eventually he learned to trust his instinct in many situations, led by Dumbledore, the fiercely loyal friends, and his love for his parents, without which his instincts might not have been as powerful.
Hermione might be great in book learning, but she was in the thick of the action all the way, despite her better judgment at times. Ron might be a sidekick, but try to imagine this whole saga without him! The complimentary nature of the trio is worth noting; we often neglect that which is NOT in our appreciation of what it IS. It is at the intersection of what is and is NOT that we gain a sense of true identity, such as Muggle vs. wizard/witch, offense vs. defense (why would there be defense in the absence of offense?), safety vs. risk, etc. When Ron ran away from the other two for a while in their final battle, he immediately realized his folly. These three friends helped make each other who they were.
Throughout the series, these three friends always took turns to lead (in figuring out how to rescue the Soccer’s Stone or break through the Chamber of Secrets), to take risks (wearing the locket containing one of the Horcruxes), or to figure out what’s needed at the moment. The best example of the interplay among these three was when Harry relinquished the Gryffindor sword to Ron to destroy one of the Horcruxes: Even when Ron was wavering and sidetracked by Voldermort’s manipulation (through the Horcrux), Harry never attempted to take over the task. Later when Dumbledore met Harry at King’s Cross, he said, “…perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.” Not that any of the three wanted to keep on wearing such cloth!
Now, the followers.
When leaders are absent, there are those amongst the followers who would and could step in and become leaders. When the trio returned to Hogwarts to find the final Horcrux, they found Longbottom and Ginny Weasley had lead the students in various rebellious acts against the Dark Lord’s cadre of teachers and rules. When Harry had to pretend to be dead in Hagrid’s arms, it was Longbottom who came charging at Voldemort. Charging at Voldemort!! And it was Longbottom who destroyed the last Horcrux, getting some pleasure out of leadership role by slicing off a snake’s (Nagani’s) head using Gryffindor sword!
Voldemort’s followers, the Death Eaters, could never have stepped in to assume his place. First, Voldemort wouldn’t allow it. Second, without any trust that allowed Death Eaters to “grow,” they could never see the whole battle in any purposeful manner. So, third, when their leader was gone, they had no one and no purpose to follow, because it was always about Voldemort.
There are other forms of power under “followers,” such as what Dementors and house elves possessed, to name only just two. Another time perhaps.
Power begets power, but where does it stop? By not seeking power actively, one may possess more power, and by not using power wantonly, one may know how to exert the right kind of power when the situation demands it. The key is always trying to learn. Broad knowledge comes in handy. One of the passages that resonated with me toward the end of the saga was Dumbledore’s explanation to Harry of the difference between Harry’s and Voldemort’s command of power,
“And his [Voldemort’s] knowledge remained woefully incomplete, Harry! That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. (italics in the original) That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.”
So, by attempting to destroy the child of the prophecy, Voldemort’s own fear set the stage for his ultimate destruction.
Fiction or not, the lessons and principles are real. I will use some real examples next time. Till then,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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