Back in the time before time (the late 1990s) which my cheeky children oft refer to as “the olden days” I was an enthusiastic undergrad comms student. Study was a mixed bag for a neurologically diverse freakish and awkward geek such as I was and still am. It seems lifetimes ago as I have changed career trajectory several times and have recently relinquished my position of referent power at the right hand of the maker, my inventive and entrepreneurial ex-husband Steve West.
Thinking back on how much has happened in the past couple of decades, and how priorities, people, and power dynamics have changed has had me feeling reflective about a first-year comms paper that introduced me to the fascinating concept of power types.
Early articles by French and Raven (1959) proposed that there were five bases of power:
- Legitimate – Hierarchical organisations that allocate and communicate/amplify positions and pecking orders create the foundation for this type of power. If you “report” to someone because they are your “boss” then that dynamic/base is allowed to exist. This only works if both and/or most parties agree that one person is legitimately and recognisably in a position of power over their subordinates. So. Yeah. Not my favourite. And generally I don’t know if I like the word legitimate for this base as there are good bosses and mediocre bosses and quite frankly there are terrible and reprehensible people in these positions of power across the globe.
- Coercive – Gossips. This is the power that is harnessed by your office gossip. Again, not my fave. Coercive power is wielded by those who prefer the stick to the carrot and create a sense of being able to punish others in some way. This could include blackmail, bullying, taking away social or professional rewards including a sense of inclusion or any other variation of remuneration or reward.
- Referent – I hate this one less than the first two bases. This is a somewhat fickle form of power as it hinges on the goodwill that exists in others accounts of you. This is the power that comes from “personal brand” strength and consistency. It is a lovely, warm, socially fortifying power base. However (isn’t there always a however) you can be front page hero one day and cringey has-been the next, so this power is fleeting for many or most.
- Charisma – Simply is what it says it is. If you are the kinda human that makes other people feel better in your presence, or can own a stage or work a room, then the chances are you have power that comes from charisma. Politicians tend to flex this one. This is the power of likeability and we all have days where we are bursting with charisma and days when are insufferable grumps, so don’t put all your eggs into this one basket, as mastering a few of the other bases through trial, error and authenticity might indeed be a much better strategy.
- Expert – This one I actually quite like. One of my favourite eccentrics and thought leaders the amateur mycologist rockstar Paul Stamets totally embodies this. Paul is a GOAT in Mycology and naturalism, despite not having the ivy league education of two of his brothers and having a severe stutter for most of his life. That guy adores his work, worships and respects old growth forest and lives his truth and his passion through his work and his epic story telling. There are experts all around us, learn from them. Respect them. And the coolest among them are generally pretty keen to keep learning and share what they know.
And then some years later they added a sixth:
6. Information – This is the classic “I know something you don’t know” dynamic. This power comes from knowing something, or arguably someone that gives an advantage. The thing with this power base is, as soon as the information becomes common knowledge or is shared and grasped it means the person originally holding the information has lost this advantage. HOWEVER (there I go!) sharing and exchanging knowledge can also increase informational power, particularly for “big picture” or “strategy” minded or incredibly detailed people as well. This power base belongs to people who hold the key to helping other people achieve. Keeping that to yourself or bartering with it seems a bit basic and I don’t think people should play that card.
Today we acknowledge four more bases:
7. Reward – This one is kinda the flip side of coercive power. If coercive power is team stick, reward power is team carrot. Reward power is wielded by people in a position to offer something you want. That’s a lot to think about, so I will leave it there and you can digest it however you’d like.
8. Moral – I LOVE this one. There are a few sweary, rough around the edges, brilliant misfits I have had the honour of knowing over the years and their moral compass and penchant for stirring the pot and poking the bear to keep those around them on their toes and honest is a huge source of respect and admiration. Morality is such a fluid and personal construct and concept. I guess we are all drawn to and impressed by different forms of morality. Some people are impressed with Brian Tamaki… I find his morality and activity really upsetting and offensive. Some people are offended or annoyed by the curiosity and confrontational nature of activists such as Gil Scott Heron or Russell Brand while I am genuinely impressed by both of them and so many other confronting and curios souls who have worn their damage on their sleeves and shared their passion though it made them so vulnerable. Moral power is serious power, but it is of course dependant on the perception of those who are judging that morality.
9. Connection – Networkers! Some people are just legendary at this (like my partner Damon and my Bestie Emily). They are insufferably likeable and authentic and they clearly and undeniably care about people they know. Community, connection and care and concern for our networks are cornerstones of the human condition. Social poaching and social climbing and general networking shenanigans will happen so just let it roll and be your very best self and kind to your peers and friends this power will shine.
10. Founder – This one is kind of interesting. It is the power that comes from being brave enough to be on the ground floor of things. It isn’t just for founders of organisations, it is also for people who start movements or kick off events or activities on a local or global level. This power remains long after people’s daily interactions with the company or phenomenon they kicked off or championed is severed. It is a real thing, and you’ll hear it as you pass through life: “Oh, Fred he’s the guy that started that zero waste movement out in Massey back in the 90’s… We dig Fred he’s a good sort”. So yeah, founder power is okay I reckon. It is recognition of bravery long after the fact. That’s pretty cool.
So power eh. It is a thing. Having personally made a massive personal, social, professional and spiritual shift, I have had to acknowledge changes in my own power and influence. Once upon a time I wanted to be at the forefront of change and revolution at any cost. Now, I pretty much want to be left alone. Aside from authentic and meaningful meetings of minds and souls who I Love and respect. These days I am disinterested in leading the charge and keen on finding opportunities to assuage my extreme guilt for years of polluting and creating chaos. Strangely, I have never felt so whole or content or quite frankly powerful. People have had years to get to know me and I have always carried too much trauma to mind my p’s and q’s. So these days, those brave enough to be around are powerful creatures indeed. The strength of connection and the power of having purpose is impossible to overstate.
Reflecting on these power bases, something incredible and undeniable has become quite clear. Through all of these dynamics and complexities an ingredient that distinctly impacts power is authenticity. Being sure footed and clear with your expectations and agendas is incredibly powerful indeed, and that seems to ring true if you are plotting pure or perverse pathways. If you are a self-righteous table thumping bully, best make that clear from the outset as people will treat you accordingly and watch themselves as you clearly back yourself as wielding coercive, referent and probably legitimate power. People will fear you but not trust you, and that’s probably what you want so you do you boo. Conversely, some of the most intensely powerful beings I have ever met are those who humble themselves and live a life of servitude and grace. They lead from behind and their batteries are charged up through seeing other people learn, succeed and feel joy. You can’t fake this stuff. You can’t pretend to be this moral, connected, expert founder type if you are a wheeling and dealing table thumping bully. Nope. That simply would not work at all.
So there you are. My Monday meanderings.
Have a great week and be kind to yourself out there in this crazy and fast changing world.
Thanks for reading.