What is power? I love this discussion because it calls out everyone’s beliefs, assumptions, fears and attractions to this complex concept. It turns out that power means different things to different people, and really is only tangentially related to actual leadership, but in almost all cases power is related to the use of resources and the ability to change the world. Here are the typical definitions of power that I have picked up in having this discussion online over the last few months:
- Authoritarian Ownership: ownership of resources and the ability to decide on how they are used, including telling others what they should do if they want access to the resources.
- Authoritarian Positional: the authorities granted to those who hold certain positions and can make decisions that allows them to manipulate resources and tell others what to do as long as they are in that position (but not once they leave).
- Influence: a person’s credibility whose opinions strongly affect those with Authoritarian and Positional power.
I call these powers “external” because whether or not a person has this kind of power depends on external circumstances such as the presence or absence of wealth, authority or other’s reactions.
Abuse of power
In my discussions about power, I have noticed that much of the energy that goes into talking about it is really focused on abuses of external power. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” is quoted often, and others report aversion to power because their primary association with power appears to have been an abusive one. At first I wondered if this would be more true for women than men, but after many discussions I don’t really think it is. Abuse of power is gender neutral.
I find it disturbing that there is so little positive association with the idea of power.
Another approach to power
There are two other types of “internal” power that are referenced less often, but I believe are even more important in today’s business environment, where authority tends to be more distributed and the challenges we face more complex. It’s important to note that those internal powers can easily (and powerfully) coexist with external power.
- Personal: freedom from external power that allows a person to choose how they use their own resources and energy and who use their very freedom to cause change. I call this InPower.
- Group: the dynamic of many people acting in cohesion to manage resources in multiple areas simultaneously. Group power is the only power that simply can’t function without leadership.
Not all those with power are leaders
… but all leaders have power. At least this is my belief. Having power does not by definition make you a leader. There are plenty of people who have power – especially ownership and positional power – that show little to no leadership interest in leaving the world and the people affected by their efforts better off.
By contrast there are people who get up every morning determined to make the world better and who cause others around them to think and act accordingly and these people are clearly leaders.
I believe the best leader is one who intends the world to be better as a result of their efforts and leverages personal, group, and whatever external power they can achieve, to accomplish it.
Personally, I’m most interested in personal and group power because, while they are the subtlest and least understood, they are also arguably the most important to true leadership. I am beginning a series of blog posts on the ways we typically “give away” our internal power and how to take it back to be a more effective leader.