Getting Real About Power

Diane Musho Hamilton

Diane Musho Hamilton

The heroic leadership model has been on the decline for years. Increasingly it is being replaced by an interest in collaborative and facilitative leadership practices. What does this shift mean for our understanding of the distribution of power, and for how well we work with power dynamics?

Our archetypes of heroic leadership are shaped by concepts of power. Heroic leaders wield the power of command and control. This model of leadership is most outstanding in its efficiency, and often in effectiveness. Sharing power is slower, unwieldy, requiring more communication and process, and is therefore at odds with hierarchical structure.

In contrast, collaborative leaders are expected to distribute power. Their perceived strength is derived from their ability to “empower others,” to influence the quality of groups and teams such that each person can make a unique contribution, feel valued, and share in the ownership of the mission.

This is why collaborative leadership is also facilitative. Facilitating collaborative engagement requires generosity, people skills, shared values, and an understanding of systems. It also demands true openness to the unknown, and a mindset that values the creativity and the mess that sometimes entails.

The collaborative leader must develop and employ facilitative skills because facilitative awareness can do two things at once that heroic leadership cannot: It is uniquely capable of perceiving the whole, and of understanding how to encourage each individual to make their highest contribution in service of that whole.

So if we’re interested in the benefits of collaborative leadership, there’s also a requirement to evolve beyond the limitations of hierarchical power dynamics. Yet quite often, when we move away from these familiar power structures, we run the risk of excluding or marginalizing the explicit awareness of power — in ourselves, in others, and our culture.

When conventional power dynamics are disavowed and replaced by collectivist values of equally distributed power, our desire, drive, and sensitivity to power dynamics can also go into shadow.

A simple example we have probably all experienced occurs in cultures that value diversity, community, and power equality. On the surface, the value is “everyone has equal power.” Yet in reality, this simply isn’t true. There are many different types of power at play, for example: Role derived power,  Resource power,  Power of force, Celebrity power Power of Sexuality, Power of Charisma, Spiritual Power. The list goes on, but if you point out that people are, indeed, wielding power in subtle ways all the time, you may be met with a sense of moral outrage.

The recognition that power dynamics are always functioning — whether we acknowledge them or not — doesn’t need to threaten our aspiration towards more egalitarian power. Making power an object in our awareness and our conversations is an extremely important skill for a facilitative leader, but because of our value on the whole, we tend to ignore power considerations. And so do the cultures that we are facilitating. It’s a very rare culture that can talk about power and about power differences because when we disclose our relationship to power, it creates vulnerability.

This is an unavoidable aspect of working with power—it’s always linked to vulnerability, and the exploration of it can be a very up and down experience. Power is always dynamic, always shifting, and always relative to other forms of power. You can be very powerful in one scene, and then in the next, have none.

And of course there’s a great deal of pleasure in it, too. We love derivative power—being around people who are powerful. There’s an energetic high we get just from being in the space of people with influence. And in a deeply primate way, we also love to see people toppled from power.

All of this is to say that anyone who is consciously aspiring towards a new model of collaborative leadership will be of greater service by increasing their awareness of power and making power dynamics an object in their awareness.

Anytime you don’t acknowledge a part of yourself, for good or evil, you don’t do a good job of working with it when it shows up in front of you. If your own relationship to power—your fear of it, longing for it, use of it—if all of that has not been carefully looked at, you simply won’t do a good job when you need to deal with power dynamics in an interaction. Anything that’s in shadow in you, you’re not going to have the skills to work with when you need to.

As facilitative leaders our aim is to do our best to balance power (not flatten it) when we can, and to acknowledge differences when we can’t. Either way, we still want people feel empowered to participate, which doesn’t mean having the same kind or amount of power as someone else. The risk of not considering power is that we leave power dynamics in shadow, where which has the impact of maintaining the status quo and doesn’t support people in participating more fully.

So let’s be real about power. Not making it bad, but saying, “This is what it is.” Power dynamics are part of our individual and collective experience, and when we orient from a place of fundamental curiosity, we can begin to include more of the reality that is already at play in shaping how we show up, lead, and contribute to the health of the communities and cultures we influence.

Diane Musho Hamilton
Co-Founder and Lead Teacher, Integral Facilitator®
Author, Everything is Workable, a Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution

Listen to the recording of a Ten Directions’ live call with more on this subject: Bringing Power into the Light 

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3 thoughts on “Getting Real About Power”

  1. Thank you for this article. Power has always been a shadow element for me. It’s easy for me to empower another but often challenging to step into my own power. A very big shadow for me most of my life. When confronted by someone with that old model of power over me I get very contracted. Goes back to early trauma…..but I am learning to step slowly into my collaborative power and feel into these hard contractions. It feels very empowering when I can do this. In my Real Estate business and coaching/mentoring work I’m always facilitating and collaborating with
    others and now using my voice in these power dynamics where I’m more aware of these old shadow contractions is helping me but my work with power is on going……pure attention and awareness is key for me.

  2. Thank you for a very revealing blog that brings power out of the shadows and into the light. I like your breakdown of the some types of power that I have seen and felt, but never named.

    I have been challenged with many of those dynamics, less skillfully at times than others. This is an amplification of that awareness that gives me to see those dynamics when they arise. Our attention and awareness indeed!

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