Power and Leadership

When you reflect on the concept of power, notice what comes up for you. Are you someone who desires power? Do you feel repulsed by it? Do you have other feelings that arise altogether that fall somewhere outside those two binary poles?

“Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change.”
~Martin Luther King, Jr. (Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?)

In line with the understanding referenced in Dr. King’s quote above, let’s try to look at power from a neutral perspective, without value judgements.

Power just is.

Power is everywhere, like energy or electricity. It is the key to any kind of change–positive or negative. If you are a Star Wars fan, think of power like the Force–a continuum of power that moves between the dark and light side. In A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi explains the Force to Luke this way, “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” In other words, power in all its forms shapes our experience of the world around us.

Because of the predominance of unjust systems, power is often held by the few, while many others hold none. At times, those holding power aren’t aware of or even curious about their own privilege and the ways it impacts their use of power. At other times, those holding power may be keenly aware of their privilege and its impact on their experience and that of those around them. What they choose to do with that awareness determines so much for those who are impacted by their leadership.

We might find ourselves feeling angry and frustrated at the thought of anyone holding any kind of power. It can feel constricting, manipulative or coercive, especially if people hoard and oppress by holding power over others. However, if we take a moment to notice what it feels like to have our autonomy taken away–to feel powerless–then we can begin to recognize the significance of power, and the great need not to do away with power (which is simply not an option – remember the Force) but rather to channel it in a just and equitable way.

In the Creating an Ecology of Self-Determination module, we talked about categories and containers. As humans, we need categories and containers to organize and make sense of all the stimulus that comes our way. Similarly, we also need human systems to organize ourselves and bring order to the chaos. Again, we may feel resistance to this idea if we’ve experienced oppression and injustice within such systems; the reality is that most systems today were built on a foundation of colonialism that continues to harm people. But there are other ways to wield power. There are other ways to lead.

The questions we must ask as individuals and as a collective society are: How do we want to wield and share this power? Do we want to live in societies and systems where a small group of people in charge hoard power, oppress people with fear and a “power over” approach? Or do we choose to all work together and create equitable opportunities for power to be shared and exchanged? Power can be expansive and generative if we work with it in ways that lift others up, and support people to find their own power within.

If you read this and think this kind of leadership seems idealistic or unrealistic, remember that massive change always starts with many smaller shifts. It starts with individuals and small groups of people doing things differently and working together. Each of us has the capacity to affect change simply by the way we lead and live. When we shift our own use of power within the systems we’re part of – schools, offices, teams, etc. – we show others what is possible. When we lead and engage with hope, equity and mutuality, we can shift how others experience power and support them to do the same.

In the following sections, we’ll look at four different ways of wielding power, drawing on four “expressions of power” outlined in the book A New Weave of Power, People, and Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation (VeneKlasen, Miller, 2002). The four expressions we’ll look at are: power over, power with, power to and power within.

Power Over

Power over is the more traditional, strong-armed approach to power. This approach does not foster self-determination and is not used within a peer support context

VeneKlases and Miller describe “Power Over” this way:

The most commonly recognised form of power, power over, has many negative associations for people, such as repression, wealth, force, coercion, discrimination, corruption, and abuse. Power is seen as a win-lose kind of relationship. Having power involves taking it from someone else, and then, using it to dominate and prevent others from gaining it. In the absence of alternative models and relationships, people repeat the power over pattern in their personal relationships, communities, and institutions. (2002)

Where have you noticed this kind of approach to power?

Power With

This approach to power is in line with the mutuality we talk about in peer support. “Power with” is about working together as a collective, and harnessing mutual support. A “power with” approach builds bridges and connects individuals and communities. It is a transformational approach to power and advocacy.

Have you witnessed this kind of approach to power (either in your life, or perhaps you’ve read about it or learned about it in school)?

Power To

This approach is about how the individual uses their power for their own self-development and then shares that power with the world.

VeneKlases and Miller refer to “Power To” as the unique potential of every person to shape his or her life and world. When based on mutual support, it opens up the possibilities of joint action, or power with.”

How do you think this approach to power fits with the five expressions of decolonized leadership described above?

Describe the connection of “Power To” with self-determination.

In her podcast Unlocking Us, Brene Brown interviews Joe Biden. Before the interview Brown discusses the four expressions of power. This excerpt comes from that podcast.

With power with and power to, one of the core principles of power with, power to is servant leadership. Leadership is seen as a responsibility to be in service of others rather than served by others. So rather than having to constantly demonstrate more and more cruelty and a greater capacity for bullying and shaming and those things, it’s the opposite. I see my job as your leader, to serve you and be in service of you rather than served by you. My job is to empower you, not keep the power. (2020)

Power Within

This expression of power is very similar to the concept of self-empowerment. When someone is empowered, they feel like they are in the driver’s seat of their life. They feel equipped to make positive choices. They understand their strengths, and they know and understand what they need to work on. They are self-determined and feel intrinsically motivated to learn.

VeneKlases and Miller describe “Power Within ” as having “to do with a person’s sense of self worth and self-knowledge. It includes an ability to recognise individual differences while respecting others. Power within is the capacity to imagine and have hope; it affirms the common human search for dignity and fulfillment.”

Most of us feel “power within” on a continuum. Can you think of a time when you felt this kind of power? Describe what it was like. What was intrinsically motivating to you?

Applying These Leadership Principles

After reading these ideas and principles about leadership, let’s consider creating some scenarios and figure out how you would lead an initiative.

What is one thing you would like to see changed or developed on your campus, or in your peer program?

How do you see yourself becoming involved in the change?

What would leadership for this project look like? Describe how you would create a team to bring this dream about using the ideas we have covered so far in this module.

Knowing what you know now, how would you want to lead people in this project?

What would you do if conflict arises in the team? How would you deal with it in a way that utilizes a power with approach?

How would you divide up roles and responsibilities in a way that utilizes a decolonized leadership approach? (Hint…you can’t do everything.)


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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