All roads lead to Power
Eventually, conversations about leadership, inclusion, psychological safety, or any topic related to human relationships lead to a conversation about power.
We/The Ally Co. believe that developing an understanding of power is core to the work of being an effective leader and/or change agent in this world.
To begin, let’s establish a shared understanding and definition of what power is, and isn’t. We love the straightforward simplicity of Dr. Cedar Barstow’s and the Right Use of Power framework’s definition.
In this post, we’re introducing you to the 5 types (also sources) of power:
- Personal Power
- Role Power
- Status Power
- Collective Power
- Structural Power
Can you recall a time in your life when everything seemed to be going exceptionally well - maybe it was a time when your career was moving along in the right direction, you were experiencing a lot of meaning in your relationships, your health and wellness were on track, and/or you were making progress on important goals?
These moments in time and experiences are what we describe as high levels of personal power - making change happen in you own life ,and leveraging or growing important strengths and capabilities.
Key aspects of personal power to consider:
- It’s portable, meaning you take your personal power wherever you go.
- It’s often called “personality” or “character traits” - your charisma and communication skills, your knowledge and experience, your humour, emotional or social intelligence, and/or your motivation and drive.
- It fluctuates, often moment to moment and day to day. If you’ve ever had one of those days where you didn’t feel like doing anything, or felt that you were powerless in the face of the world, you’ve felt this fluctuation.
- It grows over time. As we gain experience and convert that into knowledge and skills, our ability to take on bigger and harder challenges continues to grow.
- Popular synonyms for personal power include concepts like “grit” and “resiliency”, and/or the ability to face hardships while continuing to grow and thrive.
This second type of power is based on the roles (or positions) we occupy in the world. You can think of roles in this context as the jobs that we do (e.g. teacher, doctor, plumber, coach, etc.). They come with a set of expectations, responsibilities, and some sort of reward or compensation (often a salary).
Key aspects of role power to consider:
- It’s contextual and doesn’t exist outside of that. For example, a plumber only has “plumber power” when they’re engaged in repairing pipes for their customer. If they ran into each other in the grocery store, that power relationship would not exist.
- It’s relational. For example, a teacher needs a student, a doctor needs a patient, and a salesperson needs a customer.
- It’s typically appointed, hired, or “granted” by an organization or, at the very least, negotiated between two parties.
- It's usually formal, obvious, and comes with a uniform, a title and a job description.
Status power can be understood as “membership” in a group that holds power, typically a majority or people with “privilege”. We believe that a discussion about ‘intersectionality’ is fundamentally a discussion about power - particularly status power.
Types of status power
Below are a few different types of status power, including our perspective (in parentheses) as to what might be considered the “up power” status in each type listed below (and this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list).
- Gender (cis-gendered, male)
- Age (midlife, 30-50)
- Ethnicity (caucasian)
- Education (advanced)
- First language (english)
- Sexual orientation (heterosexual)
- Ability (able-bodied)
- Health (not impaired)
- Marital status (married
Signing a petition, volunteering on the parent council, marching in the streets, or joining a trade union or political party are examples of collective power. This type of power accumulates and grows stronger when more voices are brought to the table.
Typically, collective power begins from either a place of marginalization and oppression (as with social or civic movements like Black Lives Matter or the evolution of trade unions), or from structural power and the development of organizations and institutions that help to reinforce existing structures and ideologies.
A few examples of collective power:
- The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s in America
- Black Lives Matter
- Wikipedia (the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit)
- Labour unions
- Street gangs (not every organization or institution is positive)
- Any group (company or otherwise) with a shared vision, mission and values
The fifth and final type of power is structural power, and it can be summed up in three words - systems, stories and symbols. Structural power includes the mindsets, paradigms, and operating principles which influence all the other types of power in a given society or context.
For example, every culture and society has some form of an educational system. Historically, this might have been experiential education, delivered through the practice of living in nature or at the hands of elders in the community. But every contemporary educational system has a set of beliefs (stories) about what is important to learn, and the best method for doing so.
These systems often become monolithic (a kindergarten to university degree path is pretty much the norm in western society), and a structure will form that becomes the status quo in society. In our educational system for example, the symbols would be grades or some form of individual assessment - a measure of a student’s intelligence, skill and capability.
Why does all of this matter?
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, we believe that eventually all roads lead us back to a conversation about power. Not understanding the different types of power, and how they intersect and interact with each other, prevents us from fully understanding the dynamic of what is occurring in our relationships and experiences.
Without a more complete understanding of power, we’re unable to engage in thoughtful, nuanced conversations about how to identify and solve or manage problems, both in our individual relationships and in society at large.
Interested in learning more about the Right Use of Power framework? Click here and join us as we move people to consciously use their power to create meaningful connections and a positive impact for a better tomorrow.