Authority Versus Power

“Power does not consist in striking with force or with frequency, but in striking true.”
– Honoré de Balzac

There are those who say that you can’t have authority without power. There are also those who say that you can’t have power without authority. Either way, it is inescapable to lead change without some understanding of these concepts. To me, the critical question is: Can people with authority cultivate a culture that people feel empowered to lead innovation?

authority vs powerAuthority is not always blindly obeyed. Authority is subjective; it is depends upon an our perception of its rightness. When you’re trying to lead people to create change, power is more important than authority. Leaders should embrace the idea of people feeling powerful.

 Talking About Power

Leaders think of power as ability to do or accomplish something. What is POWER? In mathematics, power refers to exponentiation. It can also mean exponential growth of the number of people on board with the change you’re trying to create.

In physics, power refers to energy, force or momentum. An action in one place can make something happen in another place. Social power is the same way. Think of any movement, and how actions in one place influenced results in other places.

I like to remind folks about these myths and insights about power from a great book, The Quickening of America:Building Our Nation, Remaking Our Lives by Frances Moore Lappé and Paul DuBois

Myth: There’s Only So Much Power to Go Around
The Empowering Insight: Relational power expands possibilities for many people at once. The more you use it, the more there is.

Myth: Power is a One-Way Force
The Empowering Insight: Power always exists in relationships, going both ways. In relationships, the actions of each affect the other, so no one is ever completely powerless.

Myth: Power is a Dirty Word
The Empowering Insight: We cannot realize our values or goals without power. Power is the capacity to act publicly and effectively, to bring about positive change.

How do you think about power?

Three Faces of Power [added 1/21/2015]

When people think about political power, they usually fall into two groups. The first sees power as an elitist concept, one where a privileged few call the shots. The other group has a pluralist view of power – that it is distributed equitably in society. This is, of course, a basic tenet of democracy.  It is also critical to the idea of organizing, and leading change.

Without getting too academic, I want to introduce just a little theoretical stuff that might help expand our practical notions of power. Political Science scholars have, for the last half century studied what are called the faces of power. Here are just three brief snapshots from this ever-expanding continuum of thought.

1) Robert Dahl’s One-Dimensional Model of Power, which says that power is exercised only in decision-making situations where parties hold opposing views. That power is exercised thusly: A has power over B, and A can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do;

2) Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz’s Two-Dimensional Model of Power, this says that in addition to this decision-making function, power is also related to the control of communication. Messaging, or silencing messages, can control the political process, and restrict it to issues that serve only to reinforce power.

3) Steven Lukes’ Three-Dimensional Model of Power says that the first dimension of power is success in decision making. The second dimension is managing the agenda. According to Lukes, the third face of power is not as overt as the first two. It is the manipulation of the wishes of others without them knowing they are being manipulated.

In an age of rapid dissemination of information it is easy to see how the second face (controlling communication) is more difficult. People acting as citizen journalists take to the streets from multiple angles to expose truths that people seeking power and control don’t want you to know. When everyone on the street has a camera and a publishing mechanism in their pocket, it is pretty hard to deny the reality they are sharing.

Similarly, manipulation is enhanced by social media. For people who want to maintain power, propaganda finds all media platforms. For example, Fox News masquerades as “fair and balanced” journalism when it has a clear agenda that has no intention of being either fair, nor balanced.

People’s access to good information is important for leadership. Leadership is not about public relations machines that spin every message your way. Real information creates real options, and real choices. When people have the power to make informed choices, they are more likely to act on behalf of that choice becoming a reality.

Fixed Versus Growth Mindset

“If, like those with the growth mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you’re open to accurate information about your current abilities, even it it’s unflattering. What’s more, if you’re oriented toward learning, as they are, you need accurate information about your current abilities in order to learn effectively”
― Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

We need to be aware that we have ideal mindsets, and real mindsets. Even though we like to believe that we embrace growing and learning, fixed mindsets contribute greatly to keeping us from accomplishing goals. The comparison below is based on Carol S. Dweck’s 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

mindsetLike so many of the ideas we discuss here, changing your mindset requires courage. We are afraid to fail. We are afraid of criticism. It’s pounded into us from an early age.

Leaders can help people bolster their courage. Ways that you can help others (and yourself) to overcome fear, and demonstrate more courage include:

  • Build confidence – Try to capture the feeling of confidence that you have when you are inside your “comfort zone.”
  • Wade outside the comfort zone – Know personal limits, and start small. It is always easier to face the things you fear when you are with someone else. Be there with people when they take those baby steps toward facing their fears. When you get to the uncomfortable place . . .
  • Avoid hesitation – Don’t allow for more time to come up with excuses. Accomplish something small, and then lock that success away to bolster your confidence next time.


“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.”
— George Bernard Shaw

I created the table below to illustrate a few of the ways that people think about responsibility. The first use actually address the difference between responsibility and accountability. Accountability is liability, and demands some sort of response. You can be responsible by being accountable.ResponsibilityThe “it’s not me” notion of responsibility is often used as the excuse for not doing the right thing. It often takes courage to avoid using this excuse, because it can mean risking an asset or a privilege that you currently have.

To think of responsibility as a social contract is supposedly what we are doing in a democracy. Of course, the idea that democracy is primarily about competition rather than cooperation often keeps social responsibility from being a primary consideration.

Entrepreneurs Versus Administrators

“Entrepreneurs may be brutally honest, but fostering relationships with partners and building enduring communities requires empathy, self-sacrifice and a willingness to help others without expecting anything in return.”
– Ben Parr

Administration of any institution is essentially a conservative practice. Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, is progressive by definition. When you look at Greg Dees’ table below, the idea that jumps out is that administrators are essentially risk averse. Of course, when no risks are taken things don’t change a whole lot. It isn’t that entrepreneurs don’t try to mitigate risk; they simply embrace it as part of the price you pay to innovate.

entrepreneur vs administratorSource: J. Gregory Dees, Co-founder, Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE), Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business

Consider the value in entrepreneurship’s bias toward action, combined with flexible perseverance. This the best recipe for creating change. Bureaucratic administration is the best recipe for maintaining the status quo.

There are certainly enterprises that need to be rooted in bureaucratic procedure. If your goal is to create something new, and different, however, you may want to consider entrepreneurial approaches.

How can leaders foster and cultivate entrepreneurship?

  • Encourage creativity. Crowdsource your challenges among your team and allies.
  • Continually experiment with small “proof of concept” pilot projects. Don’t just talk about doing things differently; try something new.
  • Play the devil’s advocate when plans appear to follow the way things have “always been done.” Just make sure that you don’t let questioning everything keep you from action.
  • Don’t be too prescriptive, and encourage ownership of your goals. People will see various paths to achieving outcomes.

It seems that to a great extent, administration is about power, and mitigating risk. Continue the exploration of those topics by clicking the links.