Power Isn’t (Automatically) Leadership

Power Isn’t (Automatically) Leadership

“Missus, see here, what do you think of our politics?”

The question was posed to me by a student in one of my* sociology classes in Belfast. I had gotten versions of it for years – in pubs, in church halls, in living rooms. Northern Irish politics are not for the faint of heart or anyone who doesn’t love complicated puzzles. I’ve been studying and following and listening for years, and so I have a few pat answers to the posed question.

On that particular day, however, another stalemate had been declared and the government looked on the brink of collapse. (This, by the way was about three and a half years ago… the Northern Irish Executive kind of collapsed in January of 2017 and maybe will fully collapse in the coming weeks and then there’s Brexit and who knows and welcome to what I meant by ‘not for the faint of heart’.)

I saw the exhaustion in my students’ eyes. We had just spent the class talking about the sociology of power in general and the works of a guy named Michel Foucault in particular. We talked about state control of inmates in prison systems and women navigate dating relationships and what, exactly, power means. She had been quiet for most of the class – which was unusual for her – and I knew this question was not casual. She wanted to know if I could help her understand, if there was a piece she was missing somewhere, or were things really as bleak as her peers believed?

“I think there’s a lot of people confusing power for leadership, and waiting for silence for listening,” I replied. “There is a leadership vacuum and it’s killing you all.”

“What do you mean? Leadership means being in charge.”

“Does it?” I replied with a smile. I told her to look up Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on leaders and safety and then if she wanted to have coffee to let me know. We started an email exchange that’s still ongoing, well after she graduated and I left the university. She’s become a voracious scholar of what exactly ‘leadership’ means and how it differs from ‘in charge’ and how it doesn’t. On this President’s Day, I’m flashing back to our conversation that day in the hallway.

On the right, in the graphic, you’ll see words in bold that Americans connect to the word “President”. They center around this concept of ‘being in charge’ or being in control. They’re to do with power – or power as we think of it. The bottom are words that people associate with the kind of leader they want to work for, or be led by. They have everything to do with power, but not how we usually think of it.

Sociologically, power is permission.

Whoever is in front of a group of people is there because that group is okay with it. If that person is a tyrant, it may be because fear is making the people ‘okay’. If that person is there because of a title, it may be because the group are their employees and the employees have bought into the structure of the company and agree that the title is higher than theirs. If that person is an elected official, it’s because at least some of the population voted for that person. Whoever didn’t vote for them has still agreed to live in a democratic republic, and therefore has given permission to the position to be in charge.**

That’s all ‘power’ in the traditional sense, but that permission is important. When we combine that with the words on the bottom – the permission takes on a whole new meaning. If someone is leading because the group has decided they are wise, or kind, or trustworthy, it usually also means the leader understands this permission. They have not taken control, they have earned trust. They don’t use their authority to advance their agenda, they exercise wisdom to use the permission granted to them to help out the whole group.

In Northern Ireland, the “whole group” is where a lot of this falls apart, but that’s for another blog. Instead, think about your organization, your family, your business, your congregation. Whose vision are you following? What are the dynamics of permission there? Do they need to shift?

If your answer, by the way, is “I have no idea”, then let’s talk.

For a lot of Americans, today is a day off. For the rest of us, this holiday is usually marked by mattress sale commercials and not much else, but I’d encourage you to take a beat today and think about power and permission.


*Dr. Donnelly is the ‘me’ in this one!

**This, for the record, is why protest can be so important. It’s the reminder to the ‘in charge’ person that their permission is being tested. ‘In charge’ folks who ignore protest do so at their peril – from small rumblings in the break room to full on marches in the street. I’m not saying they should automatically grant the protesters demands, but they should 100% be listened to and addressed. If they’re not? Permission may be revoked.

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