Power-Over Versus Power-With

Somehow I find myself talking about this topic repeatedly as an aside, so it’s probably time to address it at more length.  I usually refer to the power-over model or the power-with model when talking with people in positions identified as “leadership roles.”

When you have power over someone, there is an implicit notion of the power of symbolic death:  you have the sanctioned prerogative of disciplining them or terminating their engagement in a group, or even their employment.  This is the basis for most of your interactions with them, whether that’s discussed in each conversation or not.  They respond to you, comply, because they know you have power over them—can harm them if they do not comply.

When you have power with someone, there is a sense of negotiated response or compliance, being together or allied in solving a problem.  You do not have—assume or make use of—the power of symbolic death and cannot or disclaim any right to discipline or terminate their engagement in a group.  They respond to you, comply, because of motivations such as respect, goal alignment, curiosity, admiration, or, arguably, valuing the group you both belong to.  The power is at least to some extent shared as speaking and listening time is shared in a conversation.  And, in a power-with model, the “follower” likely makes more decisions without initial consultation with you, the identified leader, and carries more responsibility for his or her own success and the outcomes of those decisions.

The power-with model has been around for a long time, but it has not been the dominant model.  Compassionate use of a power-over model often masquerades as power-with, and it is certainly likely to have a better outcome than a domineering use of a power-over model.  However, the power-with model, which is required for highly collaborative environments to exist, is sufficiently mysterious, it seems, that most people in organizationally-identified leadership roles, most of whom are traditionally trained and enculturated, cannot see their way to use it and mistake compassionate power-over for power-with.

One of the key advantages to the power-with model is that it builds core strength and leadership skills and abilities among “followers.”  This may seem to make organizationally-identified leaders less valuable:  it does the opposite.  Organizations today are faced with a wide away of complex problem sets.  Building leadership skills and abilities (an aspect of core strength) across the organization makes leading in the face of complexity more feasible.

This is not to say there is no place for a power-over model—as in those situations when swift, decisive action must be taken and there is no time to “win hearts and minds.”  However, this model is only likely to get us out of a specific crisis while causing certain “collateral damage” and preventing, or at least not attending to, the need to develop a “leaderful” organization which can prevent similar crises in the future.  Healing the collateral damage and development of organization-wide leadership will still need to be done.  The important thing, as Gary Hamel points out in The Future of Management, is to stop letting our organizations get to the point where drastic turnarounds are necessary.  Building in a power-with model helps build an organization that is “capable of continual trauma-free renewal,” as Hamel encourages modern managers to learn to do.

When we persist in resorting to power-over models that neglect the long term health of the organization and tacitly assume that an organization’s life is necessarily littered with turnarounds, we create our own futures.  And, many managers build in their own demise.

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