Three Portraits of Power: A Response to the Personal Theories of Power

“Anytus and Meletus can kill me, but they cannot hurt me”

The idea of power is a central topic at the heart of strategic thought, and an idea worthy of study and reflection. Any attempt to describe the intricate nuances of just one personal theory of power adequately in a short blog post is almost foolhardy. So instead, I will describe three: a simple model based in social science methodology, one based on complex systems theory, and one grounded in classical stoic philosophy.

Model 1: A Simplistic Model

In the social sciences, there are many ways to determine a theory; each of them with its own strengths and weaknesses. Pulling from only one data point to build a theory (e.g., a ‘personal’ theory of power) will allow me to represent my perceptions (have internal validity) but may not necessarily hold up when triangulated with the experiences of others (lack external validity). Given this limitation, one can use qualitative approach that looks at the phenomena of power inductively to create a simplistic theory that captures how they alone view power through lived experience.

First, one can conceptually define the term power simply as the ability to influence the perceptions or behavior of others. Next, one must determine an operational definition for verification and refinement. In this case, the central phenomenon is power. The five key variables that interact with each other to affect the occurrence of the phenomena are:

  1. The Actor — the one who intends to change another
  2. The Action — what the actor does to influence change
  3. The Subject — the one the actor wants to change
  4. The Outcome — the actor’s desired change in behavior of the subject
  5. The Context — the numerous environmental factors that influence change indirectly

One can operationally define (operationally in the academic, not military sense) power using the variables as follows: Within the context of the situation, power is the ability of an actor to act in a manner that influences a change in the subject to achieve an intended outcome. If the intended outcome occurs, then power is present. If the subject does not behave in the intended way, then power is absent. This simplistic model is represented graphically below:

A Simplistic Model
Ultimately, the subject’s behavior conveys his or her intention and whether he or she is driven by logic (e.g., interest), emotion (e.g., fear, honor, etc.). Although behavior has many nuances, one can generalize it into one of four categories: (1) fight, (2) flee, (3) posture, or (4) submit. What is important is that the subject gets a vote, and often seeks power over the actor. The result is a dynamic action — reaction — counteraction dance of power between opponents, which unfortunately tends to escalate. This model of power is perhaps overly simplistic and has many flaws. If that model was too simple for you, let us jump to one based in complexity.

Model 2: A Holistic Approach to Complexity

Issues of strategic significance are rarely binary or easy. More often than not, strategic problems involve complex adaptive systems that can change rapidly and unexpectedly. The prudent strategist attacks the problem on multiple fronts and from multiple angles, seeks to understand the outcome, and then attacks again. Additionally, as complex adaptive systems are sensitive to initial conditions, the strategist should seek intervention early and often.

There is an infinite number of ways to apply power at the strategic level, and depending on the context of the circumstances and the nature of the problem, the military could provide one valuable and decisive component. At the policy-level, all elements of each domain; the contributions of the different U.S. government institutions, partners, non-governmental organizations, civilian institutions, and intergovernmental organizations have a part to play. The aggregate power of any strategic approach is a gestalt of each element of national power (DIMEFIL) and a complex web of variables within the ability of the strategist to apply creatively.

Simply, strategists must think broadly about power, and apply it holistically, or they are limiting themselves and inherently taking options off the table for policy makers struggling to influence complex systems. Strategic art is not composed of one plan or policy; it is an unending process of continual assessment, adjustment, and intervention. The risk is that when a strategist takes a myopic, domain-centric view, the only “power” tool in his/her toolbox is a hammer and then every problem looks like a nail.

Model 3: Power Over Self

Power is at the heart of the quote from Socrates’ Apology quoted at the beginning of this post. In Socrates’ case, another person could hold sway over his very life and death, but never have the power over his own spirit. His commentary in “Crito” shows that power of self cannot be taken by the killing of his body. To Socrates, the power to bring death is not the ultimate power; justice transcends injustice, even in death.

Admiral James Stockdale attributed his survival in a North Vietnamese prison camp to his reading of the classical stoic philosophers that built upon Socrates’ example. Stockdale was a long-time advocate for the use of stoic ideals by contemporary warriors, and wrote numerous papers on the subject. According to Stockdale, the value of stoicism was the control of one’s self in the face all types of adversity.

It is often the fear of death, pain, or discomfort that causes one to succumb. If a Soldier takes the time to ponder the writings of stoics Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, she or he will acquire the ability to better cope with the fear that allows others power over them. Adopting a stoic mindset is valuable to any warrior, on the front lines facing Taliban or striving for excellence in the midst of a bureaucracy. In the stoic view, as death comes to us all at a time and place not of our choosing, the only true power one holds is over their own thoughts and actions.


Power is an immense topic, and although I am foolish enough to try to write on three personal theories in 1,000 words, I am not foolish enough to suggest that I have the only right opinion on the subject. My final thought on the subject is that if the strategist’s greatest weapon is his or her mind, then the strategist must control this weapon and focus it effectively though power over him or herself first. Then, and only then, should they strive to exert power on behalf of their nation.

This article was written in response to the Personal Theories of Power series on The Strategy Bridge. Aaron Bazin is a U.S. Army strategist. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: "The Death of Socrates" by Jacques-Louis Davis (Wikimedia)