When I was in college, I took Calculus for the first time. Math was never my strongest subject and in Calculus I was completely lost. Now, I realize I just didn’t have the context I needed to understand what it really meant.
Recently, I was reading a book on women and power. It included advice on behaviors women should incorporate more into their own modus operandi in order to appear more powerful — behaviors which send unconscious messages about relative power. One such behavior is interrupting. Once you start looking for it, it’s easy to see: people who come across as powerful often do interrupt others, and no one seems to mind (even though we were all taught as children not to interrupt.) So, one can generalize that if you interrupt more, you will be perceived as more powerful. As specific advice, though, this is tricky isn’t it?
Which brings us back to Calculus.
As I was considering this advice about interrupting and how that would translate for one of the young business leaders I coach, I realized the complexity of the equation. You cannot simply tell someone to interrupt more. So many factors play into the situation that can completely change the output — the difference in organizational level between the two parties, the setting, the organizational culture, and more. Imagine an intern interrupting the company president in a board meeting within a stiffly hierarchical organization. Career suicide, right? Okay, I know that is an extreme example. But the point is, this is a very careful science, the wielding of power.
In Calculus, a derivative is the measure of how a function changes as the inputs change. In wielding power also, the function, i.e. the behavior, must change as the inputs change. These changes may be so minute it is hard to put into words. This is why the best teacher is experience. Through experience, one can detect and adjust to changes so small they can’t even be articulated well. However, there is a certain amount of benefit in providing some construct, some theory, some advice as a foundation. For those of us who guide others, we can at least describe some limits. In Calculus, limits capture and describe small scale change. As coaches, we can describe certain small changes and their likely effect. After that, the individual must rely on experience to learn the balance.
Boy, who knew 20 years later, that subject would finally start making sense!