Power means different things to different people. Some say that power is the ability to exert influence beyond those one actually controls. Others maintain that power boils down to the ability to get what one wants. Considering that we need income to obtain the things that we need or want, power could also be loosely defined as the ability to provide employment in order to derive an income. All of these definitions can be grouped together under one broader idea: Power is the ability to exert influence — whether on an individual or an organization — to obtain a desired outcome.

Power and Ethics

At some point in your career, you may find that you’ve gone from being the guy who is looking to establish contacts with people to being the guy that can help others achieve their goals. Some of us will find ourselves in this situation numerous times over the course of our careers; others may never confront such a scenario. After all, no matter how important you may be (by virtue of your position or stature), there will almost always be people with greater clout than you. That being said, most of you will ascend to positions that will demand a use of power that is efficient, effective and, above all else, ethical.

If you thought that the subject of power was a gray issue, just imagine how thorny the topic of ethics might be. Ethics are a strictly subjective matter (what allows you to sleep at night is awfully different from what allows your neighbor to maintain peace of mind). Nevertheless, there are some general rules of thumb when it comes to using your position of power to reap benefits.

Position vs. Stature

The first thing to understand is the distinction between those things that come your way by virtue of your position and those that come your way by virtue of your stature. Your position is just one factor that makes up your stature; conversely, your stature might be what leads you to get your position. It is entirely possible for some us to have positions that are more valuable than our statures, while others might have statures in social circles that are worth more than their positions.

By stature, I am referring to the combination of factors that make up how others see you. In business circles, your stature might stem from factors such as your education, experience, income, wealth, contacts, and personal traits. Your position, on the other hand, stems directly from your employment. So while your position will determine the power you wield, which will change with different positions, your stature can only grow if you play your cards right, regardlesss of your position at the time.

It’s after acquiring power that things can get difficult…

Temptations of power

There is, however, a major nuance that some men with power forget. This slip of the mind — or momentary lapse of judgment — can cause them to lose their positions and some of their stature altogether.

Throughout history, men of influence have had to manage considerable conflicts of interest because of the positions they have held. For example, the President of the United States holds tremendous power. This power translates to tremendous stature, which leads to great rewards and perks. Once he leaves office, however, the President’s position fades and his legacy remains undetermined, so his stature can even increase if he plays his cards right —- or decrease rapidly if he exploits his past achievements.

Corporate leaders are the same way to some extent: If they act ethically when they hold positions of power, their legacy grows, but many temptations accompany such positions. If they abuse their power, they may be forced to leave disgracefully and lose most of their stature along with the benefits that came with it.

Jack Welch, former CEO and Chairman of GE, was offered a ton of stock options in exchange for postponing his retirement. Instead of accepting the gargantuan offerings, he simply asked the GE board of directors to extend some of the benefits that came with his position into his retirement. Thus, he would be afforded use of an apartment in Manhattan and of the GE jet.

The board granted him his wish, which probably ended up costing them far less than the original stock allocation he was offered. GE probably did not think twice in granting this request, and neither did most shareholders, who were rewarded handsomely during his tenure. But some critics expressed dismay… not surprisingly, since that is what critics do.

Pick your perks

The lesson here is that Welch only managed to get into a position where he would be granted such benefits because he used his “credits” wisely. As a young professional, you have to pick and choose when to reap the benefits of your position. Jumping on everything that comes your way sets a precedent and serves to mark your territory, but you also lose considerable stature by doing so, making it more difficult for you to one day obtain a position where such benefits will naturally flow your way.

I think that the President should be paid a lot of money. Why? Because if those in power are very well compensated, then there is less of an incentive for them to engage in actions whereby they will take advantage of their position and stature for excessive personal gain. On a side note, this explains why many of the people who run for the Presidency are extraordinarily rich. They do not need the money and, if they did, they would not run for office. The best and brightest minds turn to business because they can improve the world and make a bundle; that is who you want to run the White House.

Human beings might have finite needs, but they have infinite wants, as well as a tendency to give in and allow themselves to take advantage of their positions to get some benefits. It is realistic for someone to leverage their stature to get what they want, but the more they do this, the more the value of their stature will suffer in the long run.

Email of the week

Editor’s note: This reader’s e-mail has not been edited and is presented as is.

I love living and working in the U.S., but I think that the time has come for me to move away, either to Europe or, preferably, Canada. Do you think such a move is wise and, if so, what do I need to know?

I will assume that the reasons behind your decision have little to do with your actual employment, but more to do with the things that balance your work. With that in mind, if you are set on moving, then realize that, despite everything, the U.S. remains the center of capitalism and the heart to its numerous sectors, especially NY and SF.

That being said, these days, you can start anew in numerous cities far away from these financial centers. If you really want to move, you need to determine whether you are looking to start a new company or work for someone else. I advise against starting your company in a market you are unfamiliar with; that is too risky.

Before anything, you need to ask yourself what you need legally in order to make the move. The next step is to find yourself an employer. If you insist on finding one before your move, the move itself will be less risky, but you will be stuck with your new employer for a while.

Assuming you have already made up your mind about moving, your ideal bet, and I stress ideal, is to move and only then look for work. Not only does this approach allow you to familiarize yourself with the pulse of the local economy, but you will also have a chance to get settled in and meet more people. Of course, this is not feasible for everybody, but if you can pull it off, it might pay off dividends down the road, both professionally and socially.