Power and the leader

A group enquiry

I recently had the privilege of leading a group enquiry into power for Harthill Consulting, in the context of adult development (vertical development).

The intention was to create an environment for fertile enquiry questions which would allow us to learn.

As we began, I invited participants to contemplate a framework of contexts of power and of the extent to which, or sense in which, power is in the eye of the beholder.


Power is multifaceted

One of the most striking features of power is, it seems to me, how multi-faceted the topic is – and how richly the facets interrelate and intersect and interdepend. There are many and varied implications for the exercise of leadership, and leaders can benefit from reflecting on these.  For instance, a variety of perspectives are afforded by looking at ‘my’ power, ‘your’ power, ‘our’ power, and the power in and of the system.  Further, within each of these comes the contrast between personal power, the power afforded by title or status, and the nuances of the perception of power that arise in the presence or absence of fear or shame.


Definitions of power

Paul Tillich, a Protestant theologian and philosopher quoted by Adam Kahane in his book ‘Power and Love[1]’, speaks of power as ‘the drive to achieve one’s purpose, to get one’s job done, to grow – an urge towards agency and self-transcendence’. Food for thought, including the striking emphasis on power as rooted within the individual or group’s growth and ‘becoming’.

In her book ‘Power, a user’s guide[2]’, Julie Diamond talks about personal power (which she refers to as the key to other types of power) as ‘an inner feeling of power that reverberates regardless of what happens to us… It helps you roll with whatever life throws at you’. She suggests that ‘using power well – that is, responsibly and effectively – is the ability to impact and influence situations, across diverse and unpredictable contexts, legitimately (with the implied or explicit cooperation and agreement of others), for the greater good’. I’m glad to see the reference here to ‘the greater good’, as power, it seems to me, must be taken in context.


Intentional and unintentional power – and empowering

Power can be intentional: think any autocratic leader, or a leader who gives themselves freedom to disregard traditional boundaries and rules – think Boris Johnson, for example. It can also be unintentional, arising, for example, from an individual’s charisma, authenticity and integrity – think Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa.  Interestingly, when a leader ‘empowers’, this suggests that they ‘own’ power to bestow – and that the follower has no, or less, power until that bestowing happens.  Correspondingly, we can, as followers, give our power away – and this merits some reflection in terms of what induces us to give it away (sometimes very easily).


Power can be relational: ‘power with’

Power can be profoundly relational.  If you’ve had contact with horses you’ll know that you can’t make a horse do anything: it will only do as you wish if you’re in relationship with it.  Something similar goes for humans too: you can achieve an outcome through the obedience that arises from coercive power, but that will be rooted in fear, and it certainly doesn’t fit with Julie Diamond’s ‘greater good’.

So power can be ‘power over’ or ‘power with’ – and the latter implies more sustainability through relationship and connection.  Coaches have power in the coaching relationship, of course, and it’s at its most fruitful when it’s ‘power with’ – walking beside the client in a partnership of connected co-enquiry.


The courageous use of power

And what about the courageous use of power, which Harthill suggests is key to adult development (perhaps because we can view it as a manifestation of who we really are)? Courage may manifest in a willingness to stand in your own power, even if this means taking a path which isolates and detaches you from your community and from the belonging which is arguably one of our greatest human needs.


Power, courage and compassion

In other contexts, witnessing suffering can be the spark and motivation for the courage to act, so that power, courage and compassion can go hand in hand (understand by ‘compassion’ the empathy that we feel when we witness another person suffering, to which are added wanting to see the relief of that suffering and wanting to do something about it).  Worth contemplating is the arresting suggestion that diminishing a person’s suffering can mean diminishing their power because it implies that we, not they, make the decisions about what they want to do about their suffering.  For those of us who believe deeply in the significance of compassion in leadership, this is a challenging thought.


Questions emerging

I emerged from the session with more questions than answers: what, for example, is the nature of the relationship between our power and our (and our clients’) developmental stages?  What does this reflect about the systems we’re in? What more is there to discover about what the courageous use of power really is, where its sources are and how it shows up? How do we hold – and withhold – power?  As a coach, am I making the best and the most ethical use of power in my relationships with my clients?  And many more questions besides… rich territory indeed.  The learning continues.

[1] McGraw-Hill Education 2009

[2] Belly Song Press 2016



Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

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