I have a client who has a $20 million business, and a lot of bad associations with power.
Power was his angry father breaking his toys. Power was retaliation and punishment. Power was what happened when you pushed things to far.
He swore he would never be like that.
And now he had a leadership team who was always bickering, whether in front of him or behind his back.
Now he pleaded with his team to do things but was not willing to impose consequences. He avoided conflict because of the associations it brought up in him.
The company was suffering. Customer service was suffering. Even sales was suffering.
My client needed to find his power, fast, or he was going to lose his company.
But his model of power was a toxic one, and he refused to use it.
The Toxic Model—Power Over
Many of the models of power that we have are toxic.
The angry general berating his troops because “lives depend on it.”
The abusive football coach making his team run wind sprints until they vomit to “toughen them up.”
These are what we call “power over.” Power because of positional authority.
Do what I say or you’re out.
You’re off the team. You’re fired. You’re grounded.
Many of my clients have experienced this form of power and fight it or deny it in themselves. They understand it doesn’t work but they don’t know an alternative.
Even when exercised with calm and respect, positional authority assumes that the leader knows and does not allow for the fact that they may not.
The Collaborative Model—Power With
Another model of power is about the goal at hand rather than the people.
“Power with” is about moving toward a goal together. It assumes that there is not one person who has a monopoly on either knowledge or power, and allows people to adapt accordingly. Ideally it is power through improvisation, exercised as the situation calls for.
“Power with” is elegant when you are able to pull it off, but there is a reason that “power over” is still the dominant model. “Power with” is very difficult to negotiate.
Because “power over” is the model that everyone is familiar with, it tends to be the model that people revert to when things get hard.
“Just tell me what to do,” a team member will say.
Most people are inherently uncomfortable with power and don’t want to exercise it.
And the people who are comfortable with power are often, unfortunately, the people who are least likely to use it responsibly.
The Flawed Assumption
There is a reason that neither of these models work.
They assume that power is something that must reside outside of ourselves, that it must be granted by either the position the person is in or the task that needs to be accomplished.
It assumes that we cannot trust the purest form of power. The power that is deep within each of us.
Our Inherent Power
We each have power and use it every day. We make requests and choose to grant them to others. We decide what is consistent with our values and what is not. We choose goals and team members and relationships.
And yet almost all of us, from time to time, hesitate to exercise this power, worried about abusing it, or about the conflicts that our exercise of power can produce.
But this authentic power is the closest thing we have to a North Star.
What is it that you are willing to claim with your power? What is it that you are willing to, even required to, fight for?
Chances are these are the things that are most dear to you.
Your most cherished relationships and values.
At some point you must exercise your power, or you will risk the things that are most dear to you.
And yet you are likely scared of this power.
How do you exercise it in a way that feels true for you?
My client began to state what he wanted. He began to create clear and measurable goals.
Technically, this was power over, positional authority.
He is, after all, the CEO and owner of the company.
But he also gave people a lot of autonomy in HOW they reached their goals.
They were given power to create as they see fit.
There was a lot of collective power in his leadership team. And business results soared because of it.
What is your relationship to power? What version of power is the one that you want to create?
I’m having a deeper conversation about power with Nathaniel Dunn – Change Maker tomorrow on Zoom, at 9 pacific, noon eastern, 5 UK time.
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