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What Is Power?
#6 It is Personal!
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In my workshops, when I talk about power, I can visibly see some women shrink. I start such workshops with, "I say power, and you say ____________ (fill in the blank)." People often are quiet, and then say words like, "force," "dominance," "influence," "control," "leadership," etc. Some women will go on and say they feel powerless, or they do not like "power." Power is sometimes, a dirty word. Especially for white women who are trying to do racial healing work, white privilege has become something to be ashamed of and some people erroneously reject "power," not understanding that as we all step into, and develop, our personal power, we will do more to heal racism within ourselves.
I think the proper response to my question is "What sort of power are you talking about?" or "In what context are you speaking of power?"
It is time we make friends with power and recognize exactly what power is and is not. Brené Brown has done a lot of work in this area, and although as some of her work is not totally culturally relevant to everyone, this aspect of power and how she breaks it down, is relevant to everyone.
The word power simply means "the ability to do, or act." In a 1968 speech given to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. defined power as "the ability to achieve purpose and effect change."
Context: Personal Power
I designed the image below to address different types of power to begin to understand what power is, and not confuse it with other words such as ambition, courage, authority, force, and strength.
This image speaks about personal power: Power that is within your control to achieve purpose and effect change. It starts with the individual as that is the only thing you really have control over. The image helps us answer the questions: Where does power come from? How do we tap into it? What can we do with it? What are our limits or boundaries with it?
At the center, we see, "Infinite Personal Power." The infinite aspect to all these aspects of personal power is profound. It does not end. Keep feeding it and it will grow. It is synergistic.
Starting at the lower right-hand corner, we see "Power Within." This is the ability to wake up in the morning and have a devotion, some yoga, be in nature, or do a meditation and connect with yourself and your own divinity as well as the Divine. This is where we have a ritual that connects us to "All That Is." I personally find this source of power deeply spiritual. The importance of "Power Within" is our life force, the animated state of beingness that makes us human. The rituals that we engage in to connect to that life force to be able to see ourselves in the eyes of other humans is potent - Power Within.
Intentionally connecting to our "Power Within," grounds us. It gives us confidence. We tap into it through ritual. It usually helps us remember who we are. It is an act of self-compassion to take the time to develop this type of power. It is what gives us that ability to take a deep breath in the face of challenges and to "respond" from our values, rather than "react" from our fears.
Next, we move to the pink box, "Power To." This is the power to act, and this is what many of us think of as power. It is the ability to move outside of yourself and get something done, for instance, the power to vote. This is where we have the power to "see" another human being and connect with them. Empathy helps us cultivate this power. Courage activates this power to allow us to step outside of ourselves. To have a healthy "Power To" is almost impossible to do that without a healthy "power within." With this form of power, we are able to move beyond ourselves to create a community where we consider the needs of others and the impact of our decisions on those around us. Acting in our best interest and the best interests of those around us - "Power To."
Power With or Shared Power
Moving upwards to the description in blue, this is "Power With." This is also known as "Shared Power." We share our personal power when we are generous with our power, and we are not under stress or duress. We create mutually beneficial outcomes when we share our power with others. All parties stand in their "power within." There's no threat. There's no competition. There is no scarcity. It requires vulnerability. It is compassionate power based on valuing our interdependence and the fact that we need one another.
One of the professional hats I wear is at Compassionate Atlanta. Daily, we daily practice shared power as Leanne Rubenstein and I are co-directors of this non- profit organization. Her strengths are very different than mine, but we have a shared vision, and we have enough skills in common to support and help each other to make the leadership of the organization effective. She is big picture, and I am comfortable in the weeds. She will get upset with this article as she thinks it is too academic, too detailed, and not grassroots enough to be able to convey it in five minutes and be done with it. If she wrote the article, she would probably only cover "Power Over" and "Shared Power." And we both agree, we need both perspectives.
We speak truth to each other, and we hold each other accountable and give a lot of grace to each other. It is not always easy. Sometimes, we have conflict as it relates to the way we are doing things, priorities in our personal lives that affect the job, and both of us wait to the last minute to submit things. Not good! But our conflict is generative and focuses on the problems, not on each other's personality. There is zero competition between us. We look for ways to do less instead of more. And we affirm each other all the time. We do not fear conflict that may arise as we trust our knowledge that conflict helps us define and clarify, not obliterate each other. Bringing out the best in each other - "Shared Power."
Power To Convene
The fourth type of personal power is the "Power to Convene" which is in red. It is usually used in the nonprofit world. It is the sharing of your network on behalf of someone who does not have as much of a voice as you do. This form of personal power is based on our common humanity and creates equality.
This type of power is sometimes called "power to empower" but I do not believe that a human being can actively empower another human being. We can empower processes, but not human beings. Each of us is born with our own infinite personal power that can grow into the "power to," and develop the ability to "share power."
Over on the left-hand side of the chart, black words describe "power over." This describes the capacity of a police officer to stop you on the road and give you a ticket because you were going over the speed limit. Notice how the power is vested in the position of authority. It is usually accompanied by a uniform to assign authority of power to the role. Uniforms do not just mean police officer uniforms. Think of blue and black suits as uniforms on white male bodies. Remember when President Obama broke protocol and broke the Internet with his tan suit? Yeah, he did not wear the prescribed uniform!! Learn to look for hidden uniforms.
This form of power is "power over" a process and not a person. It is not inherent in any human being. However, it is excellent in emergencies, at war ,and in an emergency room. For instance, if a little child is running towards the electrical outlet with a metal fork in their hand, and you pick that kid up, and yank that kid away, and toss that kid away from that danger, that is a good use of power over on a human being. It is based on the authority vested in the adult in the room, and the expectation that a reasonable adult will ensure that kid's safety. You do not sit back and say, "I do not have power over that child so I cannot do anything."
We do not use "power over" for daily living, or to relate to people. It is not designed to be part of one's lifestyle, and it is not part of one's identity. It is part of the role that one plays. It is finite. It is measurable. And it yields measurable results. Therefore, greed comes in for higher numbers or more money. Also notice on the image, the abuse of "power over" disrupts "power to" and "power with." The source of "power to" and "power with" is the human themselves, while for "power over," it is the role or position.
When a person identifies with the "power over" given to their role, as their "power within" and "power to," it manifests in police brutality, a politician refusing to concede an election, a high school kid believing that their gun is evidence of their power over others, etc. It is a source of violence.
"Power over" is accessing personal power from the highjacked stressed out brain that is seeking survival through domination and not the infinite power that stems from the thriving heart - from seeing our humanity in each other, without competition, without scarcity and with hope and possibilities.
Individualism versus Collectivism - US = 91
Masculine versus Feminine - US = 62
Low versus High Power Distance - US = 40
Application of Power
We are prone to the abuses of "power over," in our US culture. (See last 3 articles):
The high individualism and corresponding competitive norm cut us off from seeing each other and valuing our lives as equal as the focus is on winning and having "more."
We trend towards more masculine cultural emotional gender roles as acceptable, and many of these traits are about winning, more, more more, and assertiveness, toughness and material success feed the trait of "power over."
Although we are close to midrange on the low versus high power distance dimension, it upholds the deep cultural individualism aspect. No one is special even when they have a problem, and in fact, all problems are equal, and equity is not part of the culture. At a score of 40, the US can improve power differences and have more equity and not just equality.
The impact of these three dimensions of Hofstede on our culture highlights the problem of "power over" and how it affects the key trifecta of inequity at the intersection of race, class, and gender.
Culturally high individualistic traits cause us to think that racism is the problem of another person and not "my" fault as we seek to shrink away from blame. Our more masculine cultural emotional gender roles value male normativity over female values and this denigrates the female archetype in the culture as represented in women's bodies. And finally, the unspoken measurement of class where we just believe that poor people are poor because they do not work hard enough.
Note: There is a difference between today's article on power and power distance as discussed by Hofstede which is about the perception and treatment of social power. Power distance addresses how the human and societal rights of a CEO, wealthy person, or a person in a high position of government, differs from the common person on the street.
Back to my workshops, why do many women not necessarily want to be considered "powerful?" It is because many of us consider "Power To" unsavory as we unconsciously attribute "Power Over" to this dimension of our personal power.
Do you have a personal power ritual or practice? What can you do to strengthen it? Do you feel empowered to do the things you want to do in the world? Why or why not? Do you believe your power is infinite and the source is personal? Have you abused power over? What opportunities do you have to share power?
Ask yourself these questions as you attempt to observe power dynamics around you, at work, at the store, in the media. Begin to see things through the lens of power so you can get familiar with this method of observing the culture around you and develop sensitivity to inequities.