Deborah Gruenfeld “Acting with Power” – book review

I came across this book because I was listening to a podcast which featured an interview with its author. Gruenfeld was talking a little about the idea of power as a service done to others rather than as being wielded for its own sake. 

As this seemed interesting, I reached for her book. 

The first thing to note is that “Acting with power” is not necessarily meant as “behaving with power”. Gruenfeld does genuinely mean “acting” in the same way as Judi Dench would do. In fact, it seems she teaches a class on “acting” with power – working on her students’ portrayal of various dramatic roles in order to raise their confidence. 

This is aligned to the main thesis of her book. “Power” is an artificial and relative construct – dependent entirely on the situation one is placed in. One might be a powerful businessman in the office and be reduced to complete helplessness by one’s disobedient teenager at home.

Gruenfeld welcomes this flexibility of power and encourages her readers to think about playing power up and playing power down depending on a situation. You might assess that someone else has taken a lead role in a meeting and therefore you let them lead. Or to the contrary, you might see that a group of people needs someone to direct the discussion. Either way, you should be able to adapt to situation. Gruenfeld recalls going to a courtroom and imagining herself to be Daenerys Targaryen to be able to answer an interrogator’s questions (perhaps a comparison to reconsider after the last season of Game of Thrones. Or are we just pretending that the last season of Game of Thrones never happened?). 

Power, as Gruenfeld understands it, does not involve raising one’s voice or speaking over others. These are in fact behaviours that belie a lack of confidence in one’s power.  Power is… knowing that you have a huge dragon behind you which is able to blow everyone into smithereens?

No? Okay. Fine.

 “Power comes from the extent to which others need you in particular, for access to valued rewards and to avoid punishments (…) when others need you, they need you, they are motivated to please you, and this gives you control (..). Power it is the capacity of social control.” 

To continue with the Dany example, Gruenfeld also devotes a section to the idea that power can act as a corrupting influence, by disinhibiting some of our lowest instincts. She also spends a little time discussing on how you can become an upstander rather than a bystander in situations where power is being abused. 

If you want to learn more about acting with power, then this book is a reasonable place to start.

P.S. I rather like a quote by Judi Dench which is cited in the introduction of this book  “The trick is to take the work seriously, but not to take yourself seriously at all.”

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