Four Kinds of Power

While working with a client, I found myself trying to explain how a leader claims power. Part of the model pictured below came to mind.

Power is something that we all have some concern with. Without it, we cannot get things done. Without it, we are limited in how we move through our responsibilities.

At one level, power can be reduced to differing combinations of our yeses and our nos. There is at least one other dimension of power for sure, our ability to say maybe — maybe you will be eligible for promotion; maybe there will have to be layoffs. Maybe displays power by holding things in suspension or anticipation. But it has no power intrinsically. It just adds conditions to, and amplifies the power of an underlying yes or no.

We have the power to affirm: a yes to what we need and want; a no to others’ interests. Without this fundamental power, we cannot stand alone; stand for or against, or be a catalyst to change, particularly in the face of risk or danger. (The shadow of this power is selfishness and exploitation).

We have the power to sacrifice: a no to our own interests in favor of those of others. This power gives us the capacity to serve and support, to give of ourselves in the name of larger efforts, projects, values, and goals. (The shadow of this power is victimization and loss of identity).

We have the power to sanction: a no to our own interests and those of others, as well. This power is our ethical gravity, our capacity to establish boundaries for what is acceptable. (The shadows of this power are found in righteousness, denial, cynicism, and fatalism).

We have the power to embrace: a yes to ourselves and to others. This is our capacity to join, surrender, trust, and love. (The shadow of this power is exhaustion and self-deception).

Every one of these forms can lead to a “power trip” of some kind, an obsession with an unbalanced use of our intrinsic yeses and nos that places us in shadow. A good deal of our literature and film reveal through a character arc an imbalance and — if the story is good — how the imbalance resolves. Tom Cruise’s character in A Few Good Men moves from the shadows of sanctioning to claim his power to affirm. Julia Roberts’ character in Eat, Pray, Love moves from the shadows of sacrifice toward her power to embrace.

In the everyday workplace, these accents of power play out mostly in subtle ways, covered over by the task-oriented grind and demand to produce. But you see them when a manager finally holds the line with a colleague or stands up for a team; when warring parties decide together, perhaps in an unspoken way, to get better by letting go of the past, or when, given the speaker, there’s an unusual word of public praise for someone else’s accomplishment. Covered over or not, stories and scripts thrive in the workplace, too. Our movies are happening to us everyday. The arc of our character continues its course even as we work to learn our own story and claim exactly the kind of power we most need. That’s our “script” — and it’s a good one.

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