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Do we know what power is?

Let's rethink what power is. Doing so means confronting your superstitions.

6 min read




I know what power is, you say. It’s force, money, influence, freedom, government.

Let me ask some questions with the purpose of making you ponder a bit longer about power rather than come up with an answer. I am testing your ideas on power to nudge you on a path of a personal reflection, as the concept of power is a deeply personal, almost primal notion built on our own life experiences.

  • Is power the opposite of love?
  • When I ask you what power is, do I have power over you?
  • If power is the opposite of freedom, why do people look for power in the name of freedom?
  • What does power mean to you when you say, “I would like to have more power”?

How about power in organizations? In your office? You probably believe your ideas on power in organizations to be true, and as such, they have a true impact in your organizational life every day. But I have come to believe that most people’s idea of power in organizations is a superstition,* like the bad luck a black cat brings you if you cross paths.

Think about it: Your “black cat” superstition made you cross the street, made you turn the other way. Until you recognized it as a superstition, it continued to affect your life. Only when you saw it for what it was — a superstition — did it stop having an impact on you and you were able to explore other possibilities for action.

The same is true with power in organizations. You have an idea of what power is in your organization (how it shows up, how it is gained, who has it), and your actions are affected by that idea on a daily basis. But what if that idea of power is just a superstition?

When we think about power, what we normally think is “power over.” It’s a notion we often abhor — the idea of forcing someone to do something, whether through authority, reward, manipulation, intimidation or violence. Yet we live by that idea. We say power, thinking “power over” instead of “power with.”

“Power with” is about getting things done in concert with others, creating alliances, reaching out to engage differences in common and sharing work to get something done collaboratively. Is your idea of power in your organizations based on “power over” or “power with”?  There it is: the superstition in action!

I consider the power superstition — a distorted understanding of power in organizational day-to-day life — the root cause of many organizational problems. Take the issue of disengagement in the US workforce. Disengagement might come from feeling powerless. Powerlessness requires that we alter our own relationship with power and with ourselves in order to change our relationship with one another.

If we see power only as “power over,” it’s no wonder that we don’t engage in the work of power in organizations. Instead, we disengage, refusing to play the game and retreating into our private sphere.

“Getting involved is not worth it,” we say to ourselves. But what would happen if we were to recognize that our notion of “power over,” which grounds our powerlessness, is a superstition? What would happen if we were to drop it and start believing instead that power means “power with”?

I believe we would start seeing that power is about creating alliances to get things done in organizations rather than by command. We would start building relationships as a way to do our work and leading by building bridges rather than being ready to burn them if we don’t get what we want. And we would deploy our own authority or formal power in more liberating ways because exercising authority would not just be about giving orders or getting people to do something.

Living with the notion of “power with” is not about being a groupie or about relinquishing authority. Instead, it’s about meeting your own needs and accomplishing your goals by leveraging partnership with others rather than by outsmarting or dominating them. It’s about realizing that our own power and authority — if left unchecked — can create a dangerous isolation and that can fool our own moral compass and create righteousness. We counter this natural tendency when we exercise “power with.“

Leaders who have dropped the notion of “power over” keep the idea of building “power with” alive in the light of ongoing inquiry, a search that never crystallizes into dogmatism, inflexibility and irrationality of the old wives’ tale. This way profound possibilities might start sliding into place.

More specifically, here is what solving problems in organizations with the new notion of “power with” looks like:

  1. Keeping the inquiry open on the problem being solved, refusing to let any old established dogma (e.g., “A slow market is OK in January,” “This issue has always been like this, so there is no point in solving it now,” “This customer has no more resources”) condition our thinking and instead leaving things open to question and diverging opinions
  2. Learning to sit together and reflect, even for only 20 minutes a week, to build honest communication with your team — in spite of all our busyness, expertise, egoism and self-doubt — in a sort of vibrant equality
  3. Opening up spaces for participation where you never saw one. These new spaces range from those you declare for your customers (meetings, forum, informal gatherings) to those simply involving natural places where people gather to debate and discuss, spaces in which like-minded people join together in common pursuits (the cafeteria, the library, etc.).
  4. Inviting more voices than you have done before to the decision-making table by embracing modern practices of design thinking and rapid prototyping, which offer processes and tools to make people’s voice heard for the benefit of the whole
  5. Building people with the skills of complex connecting by developing conflict skills in the people of your team as an important part of the work so that everybody is on the same page. Disagreement makes for better decisions.

I think you get the picture. Now, go ahead: Switch to “power with,” see what happens and step on that sidewalk crack!

*I am indebted to Werner Erhard for these ideas about superstitions.


Adriano Pianesi is a leadership practitioner, faculty member of the Carey Business School, Johns Hopkins University, where he also teaches for the Office of Executive Education. Through ParticipAction Consulting, his consulting practice, he helps diverse groups of people come together to solve tough problems, and helps leaders work for change by harnessing the powers of conflict, diversity and complexity. He is a faculty member of the World Bank “Team Leadership Program” and of the State Department “Experiential Learning Program”. He is the author of the e‐book “Teachable Moments of Leadership” where he describes a state‐of‐the‐art experiential leadership learning methodology that gets real results. Visit his website.

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