The five types of power

August 31, 2022
Jeff Couillard

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.

Power is the ability to affect or prevent change
The Ally Co.

In this post, we’re introducing you to the 5 types (also sources) of power:

  1. Personal Power
  2. Role Power
  3. Status Power
  4. Collective Power
  5. Structural Power

Personal 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:

Role Power

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:

Status Power

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).

Collective Power

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:

Structural Power

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.

Questions? Thoughts? Feedback? Whatever it is, we would love to hear from you!