Sometimes what comes out in conversation takes our breath away doesn’t it? Conversations are wonderful ways of learning and realising stuff deep within our experience.
At a recent workshop on power leaders in ministry were sharing empowering stories and exploring ways of empowering others. What emerged was a radical question, very simply expressed: don’t we want everyone to be as powerful as they can be?
There is, of course:
- a huge “as long as”,
- and a qualification who the “we” is who so want us all to be powerful as can be
- as well as a health warning.
The health warning is that power can be so dangerous and all of our perceptions of power are coloured by our experiences and the extent to which we have been overpowered or empowered.
The “we”, of course, is not everyone. There are those who want to protect their “superpower” status and they depend on belittling and demeaning behaviours to manipulate dependence and fear in others. They have a vested interest – and they often are vested, dressed up in uniform – in a status quo in which they are favoured. To be part of the band of “we” we need to ask the question about how we can be disarming – to unilaterally disarm as an initial step to deescalate unhealthy power dynamics.
The “as long as” of the question “don’t we want everyone to be as powerful as they can be?” is as long as it is the right sort of power. We know what the wrong sort of power looks and feels like. It either makes us feel big (aka arrogant) or small – either way it is dehumanising. Our workshop conversation had begun with a consideration of a typology of power developed by French and Raven back in 1959. They identified five (later expanded to six) bases of power. Those bases are of two sorts. The first sort is the power that is handed on with authority, hierarchically and is based on position. The second sort is the power that is given by “followers”. Followers turn to people who they believe are competent (“experts”) and to people they like or respect (“referent”). Those we turn to may have positional power, or they may not.
What we wish for when we want everyone to be as powerful as they can be is:
- for them to be freed from oppressive power, and
- for us to help one another into habits (not vests!) and disciplines in which virtues grow to the extent that we inspire confidence in one another
This is a tall order. We are all broken power brokers and we all come to the conversation with temptations to, such as, protect our position, make ourselves look big/clever, win. We can only help one another. This is a community endeavour in which we can help one another uncover our abuses of power and re-member those excluded by our executive powers.
NB Spoken by a white middle class university educated priest with well reinforced positional power but convinced that the communities I care for should be as powerful as they can be and eternally grateful for those communities which have been empowering and made this life worth more that it otherwise would have been.