What’s Power Got to Do With It?

By Linda Guinee and Barry Knight

Courtesy of www.alliancemagazine.org

The first question is: what is power? The simplest and one of the most effective formulations comes from feminist psychologist Jean Baker Miller, who defines power as ‘the capacity to produce a change’.

Probing deeper, however, reveals a complexity that is hard to fathom. There are many books and articles about what power is, where it comes from, and how it operates. According to earlier conceptions, power is the ability to force people to do something they wouldn’t have done otherwise. This is a ‘coercive’ definition of power that remains at the root of our common vernacular.

More and more, however, the literature has shifted to describing power as a self-developing capacity rather than a fixed asset or possession that can be divided, shared, transferred or conferred. The literature describes power as something developed between people rather than the possession of an individual. In this model, power is constantly reconstructed in the relationship between people. Mary Parker Follett, writing in the 1920s, explained that ‘power is not a pre-existing thing which can be handed out to someone, or wrenched from someone’. Coining the term ‘transformational leadership’, she stressed the importance of ‘power with’ as opposed to ‘power over’ in producing positive change (Follett, 1995).

Click on the attachment to read the full article – including an analysis of data raising some questions about philanthropy and power.