Power may be one of the universal dimensions of the human experience. Analogous to energy in physics, power in humans can take several forms, such as wealth, armaments, influence, or knowledge.

To do just about anything — collaborate, lead, manage, co-create change, parent, learn, and even teach and coach (yes, teaching and coaching) — requires that we discern our relationship to power, then cultivate how to we wish to use it.

I begin this two-part blog on power by employing two broad definitions:

Power is the capacity to produce intended effects” by Bertrand Russell (1938); and

Power is “the probability that one actor … is in a position to carry out their will despite resistance” by sociologist Max Weber.

To expand on our understanding, Part 1 of this blog will explore the dimensions and forms of power, and Part 2 will explore the dynamics, cultural values, and practices that shift collective power.

Axioms of Power

Much has been written in Western philosophy and the social sciences on the use of power. These common axioms give power its negative connotations and often view power as “dominating” to win in a zero-sum game.

  1. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, stated by 19th-century British observer Lord Acton, reveals the corrupt nature of unchecked power.
  2. Dividing people into “us” and “them” forms an opposing faction to solidify one’s support.
  3. Divide and conquer picks off smaller factions of a larger group, leading to quicker defeat.
  4. Provide the followers with bread and circuses. The masses are less likely to challenge power if they are convinced that everyday life is most compelling.
  5. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. This notion leads to the observation that “politics make for strange bedfellows.”

Dimensions of Power

Since 1959, when social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven developed a framework for the study of power, scholars have explored up to eight dimensions of power. Here, I’ve condensed power to six distinct dimensions:

  1. Legitimate power: Position of authority; traditional roles that inhabit status.
  2. Expert/information power: Acquiring expertise, knowledge, and information that others need or want.
  3. Reward power: Offering incentives or reinforcement (praise or recognition).
  4. Coercive power: Exerting force, control, or punitive measures (opposite of reward power).
  5. Referent power: Gaining approval through loyalty, who you know, or critical networks.
  6. Influencer power: This can be of a few types, such as moral authority based on beliefs or values to emulate, or charismatic power based on attitudes or personal abilities to admire or inspire.

Most leaders and managers use more than one dimension to effect change. (See details in the grid of “Terms” below.)

Forms of Power

Power is often defined only in negative terms, as presented in the axioms above. This conflates power with force to dominate, but it can also be a positive force for individual and collective capacity to act for change.

We can view the application of power in four ways: two collective forms and two individual forms.

  • The two collective expressions are power over and power with.
  • The two individual forms are power to and power within.

Collective Context

Power in the collective context involves models and relationships that influence patterns and structures in groups, communities, and institutions.

1- Power Over

In its most common form, power over has many negative associations that involve repression, oppression, force, coercion, discrimination, corruption, and abuse. This form of power is seen as a zero-sum proposition—a win-lose kind of relationship.

This involves hoarding power—taking it from someone else, and then using it to dominate and prevent others from gaining it.

We experience this version of power over in politics; those who control resources and decision-making have power over those who don’t. When people are denied access to important resources like land, healthcare, and jobs, power over perpetuates inequality, injustice, and poverty.

Power over enjoys immediacy in producing effects. The biggest challenge with it is the need for “surveillance” to sustain the conditions of power. Whether those conditions include coercion, violence, wealth, or reward, this use of power dwindles as its conditions diminish.

2- Power With

An alternative to power over in the collective context is power with. This expression of power seeks common ground among different interests to create a shared understanding and shared commitment. Through communication and collaboration, much of this work develops collective strength and mutual support to build solidarity and collaboration, which leads to equity.

Power with requires cultivating collective capabilities—a notion that is often not fully understood in a developmental context. Here, new practices, such as attention to slow habitual reactions and cultivate patience, listening to develop an understanding of multiple perspectives, and intention to bridge, transform or reduce conflict to discover and promote equitable relations.

Individual Context

In the individual context, power cultivates and affirms people’s capacity to act creatively. It provides some basic principles for constructing empowering strategies that can also manifest in the collective context.

1- Power To.

Power to refers to “realizing” the unique potential and capacity of each person to shape his or her life and world. More a view than a skill, power to open the possibilities of joint action, mutual support, and creativity that can cultivate power with.

Optimally, power to cultivates a generative capacity to co-create, as expressed here by Charles Reich:

“Power means to me pretty much the same thing as freedom – skiing is power, sex appeal is power, the ability to make yourself heard by your congressman is power – anything that comes out of you and goes into the world is power… In addition, the ability to be open, to appreciate, to receive love, to respond to others, to listen to music, to understand literature, all of that is power.”

For Reich, power is an individual faculty expressed through the energy or creativity that is in you that causes another person to respond. In sum, power is not force. A person with power needs no force, which seems necessary only in the absence of power.

Author Tracy Goss develops much of this view of power in her book, The Last Word on Power. She reveals concealed coping strategies that keep us powerless.

A unique aspect of power to is its intersection of language, action, and temporality (past, present, and future). Thus, power is having what you say realized, and it is measured by two factors:

  • the magnitude (scope and depth) of what you say; and
  • the amount of time and effort it takes to realize what you say.

2- Power Within.

Power within uses an Eastern approach that cultivates a person’s sense of dignity and self-knowledge. Per Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, “Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”

Power within is the capacity to imagine and have internal strength and knowledge; it affirms the common human search for dignity and fulfillment. In his classic, Power vs. Force, David Hawkins explores the underlying energy that shapes a deeper truth and consciousness of power.

The use of individual storytelling, reframing, and reflection can also help people affirm personal worth and recognize their power to and expand their capacity for power with.

Both power to and power within are often referred to as agency.

Scholars of development and social change view agency as the ability to act and effect change. Citizen education and leadership development are based on the belief that everyone has the power to exact change and make a difference.

Expanding our Capacity for Power

It is useful to explore both the “dimensions” and “forms” of power when exploring power dynamics. Additionally, shifting forms of power can be challenging.

Over the last few years, there’s been a reflexive shift from power over to power with, which often excludes necessary individual development and practices. In concept, power with seems easy to bridge. In practice, operationalizing power with as a cultural norm requires personal mastery with practices.

The shift to power with involves systemic dynamics that require discovering and distinguishing assumptions and unlearning beliefs. Much of this unlearning exists as cultural norms that we swim in. It also requires developing a foundation based on power to and power within to support a culture of power with.

Unfortunately, the need for speed, quick fixes, and other opportunistic impulses often finds leaders and cultures easily seduced by the immediacy of power over. Much of this can redound to economic incentives and socialization and a lack of capacity at the individual level.

Part 2 of this blog will explore the dynamics, cultural values, and practices to shift power at the systemic level.

Reading Time: 8.5 min. Digest Time: 13.5 min

View Part Two of this blog.

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.