Give Authority

Do it! note

When people are involved in something that is organized, they sometimes need permission to act on certain things. Nobody wants a loose canon, right?

Other times people are held back by the idea that they need permission to act on things that do not actually require permission. Maybe it’s an excuse for being afraid. Maybe they are just indecisive. Whatever the reason, we periodically need to give a stamp of approval.

Here’s something to think about the next time you are in a leadership role where someone needs permission. Are you giving them responsibility, or authority?

If I say that I am giving you the responsibility to do something, it sounds like I am giving you a job to do, and I expect you to do it. Responsibility is positional. It moves from the bottom to the top. Responsibility can sound like a burden.

If I say that I am giving you the authority to do something, it sounds like I am validating your power. You are in charge of doing something due to your abilities, and your competence. Authority is a pat on the back.

Give people authority.

You don’t try to fight the man by becoming the man

“The trouble with organizing a thing is that pretty soon folks get to paying more attention to the organization than to what they’re organized for.”

– Laura Ingalls Wilder

org chart

Organizing to create change doesn’t require creating your own little officialdom. It is too easy to lose your sense of purpose when you’re concentrating a great deal of energy on organizational charts and chains of command.

Big picture, strategy meetings don’t require pure democracy. Having every allied person vote on every little question that emerges, creates a hole that you may never climb out of. The average person committed to your cause is not a professional meeting-goer. When they do meet, they have an expectation that the next step is going to be actions that move you closer to your goal, not just closer to the next meeting.

If you are so rigidly organized that your main concern becomes creating a single group with an identical message, and speaking in one voice, then you’ll lose the creativity and the unique approaches that come from diversity. Your one voice can not tell the stories that will resonate with all people. Embrace the value of others’ experiences and wisdom.

People feel less free to discover and use their own power if they always feel like they need permission. One of the most powerful things you can do is to help people understand that they don’t need permission to do the right thing.

You don’t try to fight ‘the man’ by becoming ‘the man.’ Give up ideas of authority, and you’ll actually find more power.

You Always Have Power

It is New Year’s Day, and my wish for you is to have a powerful 2017.

If you are committed to social change, the most important thing you can do right now is to remember that you are not powerless. The notion that you cannot do anything about the issues that bother you the most, is false. Here are three ideas to help you get rid of a feeling of powerlessness:

Stop relinquishing your power. Don’t give away the fundamental strengths that you possess. You may not have authority, but you always have power — and you don’t need anyone’s permission to use it (Read more about this idea here).

You are not alone. Find even one or two like-minded people. Organize. Your common self-interests will reveal even more power. Map your collective assets, and connect those assets to define actions (more here). Which brings us to one final recommendation . . .

Less talk, more action. Do something today. Once you’ve organized you group of allies, don’t be seduced into thinking that whining and complaining to each other is going to solve anything. Act. Accomplish small things. Those successes will attract more partners, who will bring even more assets to the table. In the words of the 14th Dalai Lama, “It is not enough to be compassionate – you must act.”

You are not powerless. Happy New Year.

Revealing the Invisible


“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

– Ralph Ellison

When it comes to people being invisible, there are a couple of types of invisibility to consider. Both kinds represent significant challenges in the process of trying to effect social change.

First, there are people, or groups of people that are deliberately unrecognized.  They often have few financial resources, are generally of poorer health, have less social capital, and are often considered by much more privileged people, as being less important.

The second group of “invisible” people, or groups of people are deliberately hidden. These are people of wealth and influence, whose activities allow them to rig social and political systems under the radar of most people.

The deliberately unrecognized, the unheard, and the unseen, are often at the heart of changes we are trying to create. It is important to amplify their voices, and to shed light on their realities. Awareness, education, and advocacy are key strategic goals. For example, if your city doesn’t have homeless people on street corners, and in parks, officials may deny that homelessness is something they need to be concerned about. Only by hearing the stories of people who are couch hopping, sleeping under bridges, or in cars, can you reveal the true extent of your community’s lack of affordable housing.

It is important to understand that the “invisible” are not simply needy, or victims. Giving voice to the invisible serves to uncover potential strategic approaches and assets. They are the people who often know the best solutions to overcoming the challenges that they face. Any social change effort should seek to leverage people at the margins; not as sad examples, but as full partners in planning the future.

“The government, which was designed for the people, has got into the hands of the bosses and their employers, the special interests. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy.”

– Woodrow Wilson

Revealing the invisible may not only expose unfairness and inequality, but it can also uncover something on the other end of the privilege spectrum – the so-called, power behind the throne that is working in opposition to your goals. This influence is usually purchased with large amounts of money.

These influencers are usually very careful to not actually break any laws, despite the fact that their actions may be ethically abhorrent. You may never come close to matching their financial clout, but exposing their role can, however, be beneficial. This is because the money trail points to real self-interests, as opposed to those being touted in your opposition’s misleading rhetoric. In some cases, it may be possible to boycott the source of the influencer’s income, or at least send some bad publicity their way.

Ultimately, it will probably be more effective to spend more time on revealing the realities of the deliberately unrecognized, than on exposing the deliberately hidden. That is where there is more untapped power; and it is the kind of power that money can’t buy.

When Does Getting Credit Matter?

“In life you must often choose between getting a job done or getting credit for it.”
– Leo Szilard, physicist


Under what circumstances does it matter that you (individually, or your organized group) get credit during a process of creating change? When does that recognition help? When might it become a barrier to building support?

In an earlier post on evaluation, I mentioned the idea that it is often important to focus on contribution, rather than attribution. This a similar idea. Small, often very brave acts that complement, or build upon other small acts, all lead to the ultimate success of an effort to create change. When you are trying to give a variety of stakeholders a sense of ownership of an idea, or a goal, following just one “leader” can be disastrous (especially if that leader is self-proclaimed).

Generally speaking, building the level of trust that is necessary to accomplish increasingly greater goals, requires frequent recognition of everyone’s contributions. This one of the secret’s to effective leadership – the strategic leveraging of many peoples’ strengths in a manner that creates collaborative leadership.

I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating – it is relatively easy to organize people in opposition to something. It is much more difficult, however, to organize them to create the unfavorable thing’s replacement. Separate, independent stakeholders acting to get rid of an unjust, or unfair policy or program, should have a specific, fairly detailed replacement for the problematic policy or program in mind as they deliver their case for support of change.

Consider cases throughout history where people have taken to the streets to protest oppressive regimes, only to find that the overthrown despot has simply been replaced by another tyrant. Those demanding change have greater leverage if their outrage is not simply considered generalized opposition. If they can say that their collective indignation is united in its support for specific changes, then acknowledgement for their specific role as change agents is important, because they were not simply anti-status quo; they were advocating a very explicit change.

Getting credit is less important when people are organizing, and creating coalitions. It becomes considerably more important when the prospect of change becomes inevitable, and people are expecting the vision created from their shared values. When you can say, “here is the change we’ve been demanding,” it is far more powerful than saying, “the bad thing is gone, maybe the next thing will be better.”

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.