Power is decision-making

Agency + Belonging + Power = Democracy?

I’ve always thought of power as coercive. As such, I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with it. On the one hand, I’ve been socially conditioned my whole life to aspire to power (what is ambition and upward mobility if not the will to power?) Even where I’ve been encouraged to wield it judiciously (with power comes responsibility) the pursuit itself goes unquestioned. On the other, we’re reminded that power corrupts; it’s associated distastefully with the loss or sacrifice of our ideals.

I was listening to a podcast episode recently between Tuesday Ryan-Hart and Tim Merry where they discussed power, and it struck me deeply. I found myself resonating both with the perspectives of Tuesday (a black woman from the U.S.) and Tim (a white man from the UK), and longing for a more expansive definition that felt aligned to how I want to be in the world. What could be possible if we understood power as abundant, generative, co-creative, and positive-sum?

I’d like to use this post to explore my evolving relationship to the concept of power, and propose a new definition and vision for what power can — and should — be.

TL;DR: We are trying to develop relationships — and institutions — that are not based on coercion, hierarchies, or systems of oppression. Doing so requires re-conceiving how we understand and wield power: it is foundational to our efforts to re-constitute our democracy. If the opposite of patriarchy is democracy, perhaps the opposite of coercion is invitation.


From domination to partnership (from power-over to power-with)

The first articulation of power I found that really resonated with how I wanted to be in the world I encountered through Riane Eisler, in her groundbreaking work The Chalice and the Blade. The book is a multidisciplinary re-examination of everything we thought we knew about human nature and human pre-history, and offers a vision for human relationships predicated on partnership rather than domination. She reminds us that most of human pre-history actually involved more egalitarian partnership dynamics, rather than the systems of hierarchy and domination we associate with the modern world. She locates the shift from partnership to domination in the emergence of patriarchy some 8,000-10,000 years ago, and as such traces the emergence of what she calls “dominator systems” associated with rigid definitions of masculinity. These are a shift from partnership systems anchored in a more gender-egalitarian worldview that prioritized collaboration and care (which we would now characterize as more “feminine.”)

This felt like a much more attractive model of society, one that sought to re-center our relationships to each other and emphasize the unique value of each individual. I also found the gender dimension helpful, because it offers an analysis for how we came to these hierarchies, and therefore a path to how we might undo them (as discussed in my recent series on Why Does Patriarchy Persist).

But Eisler’s model left an unsatisfying answer to the obvious question: how does a partnership model prevail over an entrenched domination system?

Toward “post-oppositionality”

Of the many shifts in my thinking and worldview over the last few years, this feels perhaps the most fundamental (I take the term from AnaLouise Keating’s innovative work). It is the shift from opposing something (with the martial metaphors of fight, struggle, combat) to withdrawing consent (ceasing to support it). It’s the paradox — echoing Audre Lorde — that was the startling conclusion to my work exploring patriarchy:

We are not smashing patriarchy (opposing something outside ourselves); we are ceasing to support it (recognizing that it lives within us). 

And so with domination systems. We cannot beat them by opposing them; Lorde reminds us we cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. This is the insight of aikido, of what Richard Strozzi-Heckler calls “blending”:

It’s using the energy of the attacker to neutralize their aggression, instead of neutralizing the person (read: go to war), bringing the confrontation into a harmonious reconciliation, instead of a zero sum game of winners and losers.

Instead we must learn to see domination systems for what they are: systems that we aid and abet every day in our relationships, interactions, institutions, cultural norms, and ourselves. So it’s not merely a shift from power over to power with (though that’s a good start). It’s transcending that binary paradigm entirely.

This is the mindset shift: power resides where we believe it does. That is, it resides within us. This is one of my favorite scenes from Game of Thrones, where Varys and Tyrion explore the paradox of power:

Seeking new models of wielding power (leading?)

I’ve always been deeply fascinated by leadership, primarily because I am interested in how people hold, and wield, power. The notion that “power corrupts” never felt quite right to me; I’m much more taken with the emerging literature offering a deeper truth: “power reveals.” As Adam Grant notes, “power is like an amplifier.” Thus it’s not leadership, but moral leadership. Not how we act, but who we are. It’s about our core identities.

So I’ve been eagerly seeking models for what this looks like in action: both in general, but then specifically for me. It’s very easy to define what not to do: there are abundant examples of toxic leadership exerting power-over. I’ve been running away from that my whole life, trying to find ways to lead that don’t rely on dominance or coercion. It’s no surprise that the most attractive models are often the opposite of what the dominant norm is, and thus always emerge from the margins: if white male leadership is what got us into this mess, perhaps it’s a good idea to look to women of color for alternative ways of leading. But of course I don’t just want different people in charge (though that might be preferable to the status quo): I don’t want anyone in charge. Or perhaps better stated: I want all of us in charge, together. I don’t want “power-over” at all.

This too is post-oppositionality: it’s seeing the margins not just as a site of resistance, but what bell hooks calls “a space of radical openness”. Seen in this light, the margins can become

A site of radical possibility… It offers to one the possibility of radical perspective from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds.

Leadership (and social change) = power + love

I keep returning to these fundamental binaries: masculine and feminine; autonomy and relationship; power and love. Of course, we need them all. My own struggle has been to too easily see the limitations of the dominant norms I’m trying to escape: manifest as a rejection of the masculine, of individualism, of power. This oppositional stance leaves me both unable to appreciate the positive (it’s not the masculine I reject, but rather the toxic masculine) and thus forced into an uneasy embrace of the opposite (feminine, peacemaking)… which also feels limiting.

My favorite reflections on finding the balance between love and power come from Adam Kahane. Dr. King famously said:

Power without love is reckless and abusive… love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.

Kahane expands on King’s conclusions (King himself was channeling Paul Tillich), drawing on an insight from Italian feminist Paola Melchiori. He reminds us that power has both positive and negative aspects, as does love (the feminine archetype of maternal love, taken to its extreme, results in self-denial and hence no sense of self). Here’s the paradox:

Love is what makes power generative instead of degenerative. Power is what makes love generative instead of degenerative. Power and love are therefore exactly complementary. In order for each to achieve its full potential, it needs the other.

The post-oppositional stance invites us to transcend and include: it’s both-and. Thus he concludes:

If we are to succeed in co-creating new social realities, we cannot choose between power and love. We must choose both. 

Yes. That feels exactly right. Echoes for me of Esther Perel’s notion of reconciling our desire for autonomy and our desire for connection, of Arnina Kashtan’s “star of life” that reconciles our desire for freedom and agency with our desire for belonging.

“Power is decision-making”

I was listening to a podcast interview featuring Priya Parker, author of the gorgeous Art of Gathering, when she offered this breathtakingly simple declaration. Yes. This feels right. This feels like the definition of power I’ve been orbiting toward my whole life, and one that resonates intuitively with my personal experience of power. This is why when seeking to redress patriarchal patterns in our relationship, my wife and I decided to experiment with trading off “decision day.” And it connects with the core grievance that is animating mass movements across the world today. As Hahrie Han put it:

They don’t have a say in things that matter in their lives. 

In short, they are powerless: they (we!) lack agency. The antidote is clear. Cyndi Suarez has consistently been among the most incisive in writing/thinking about power (she literally wrote the book on it). She concludes:

Systems change is all about shifting power.

I’ve talked elsewhere about an initiative I’m currently curating around the arc of transformation: individual (I), societal (We), systems (World). I’ve anchored much of my thinking around the notion of belonging, paired with a feeling of significance (following Alfred Adler’s work). I wonder if power is the missing piece, to make the jump from I, to We, to World. Here’s one way that might work:

Individual (I) is about feeling significant: that we are worthy. That we matter. This is agency.

Societal (We) is about belonging: we are part of something larger than ourselves. This is community.

Systems (World) is about power: we have a say in the things that affect us. This is… democracy.

Power properly practiced… is democracy

In my last post I quoted Stephanie Coontz, who observed:

For the first time in human history, we're trying to develop relationships that are not based on coercion.

It’s so hard, because we have so few models. What are the most powerful structural influences on our lives as we grow up? Parents, schools, workplaces, churches, the state. All of which are deeply patriarchal institutions organized around hierarchy and coercion, around the notion that we have to regulate human behavior in order to produce obedience and compliance. I’m still sitting with this line from Nikole Hannah-Jones on the Scene On Radio podcast episode on education and democracy:

Our schools reflect who we think are capable of self-governance, and who we think need to be governed.

Oof. That landed for me like a damning indictment of our entire society: our institutions don’t trust people to do the right thing. We are organized as if we do not actually believe in democracy. Our institutions — all of them — are fundamentally undemocratic. By design. (This was Foucault’s insight in Discipline and Punish, his foundational thesis on the nature of power). Small wonder then that we have so little practice in flexing our civic muscle: in trusting our own voice, in feeling like we belong to a whole, in feeling like we have the power to influence our lives.

But that’s changing, in real time. People are increasingly unwilling to accept their lack of agency over their lives, their lack of meaningful opportunities to exert power. It’s increasingly clear, as Barack Obama said yesterday, that our purported leaders

Don’t have all the answers… If the world's going to get better, it going to be up to you.

This is what these movements are about. Bruyn and Rayman’s classic Nonviolent Action and Social Change described how nonviolent social movements try to wield power differently:

The exercise of power in nonviolent action is not measured by an increase in the authority over people but rather by an increase in the level of independent authority of everyone. The aim is… to create the conditions whereby power can be shared. The purpose is to create the conditions in which each individual’s opportunity to exercise power is maximized in the context of the larger community.

In short: we are trying to restore people’s agency and capacity for self-governance. This is democracy, properly understood, in action. Democracy becomes the structure within which we can express our needs for significance (agency) and belonging.

The opposite of coercion… is invitation

So let’s bring this back down to earth, to our lives right here (under lockdown!) right now. It’s a core truth I’ve encountered in Keith McCandless’ Liberating Structures, in Ceasar McDowell’s concept of “micro-inclusions”; here’s how Cyndi Suarez boils it down:

Interactions between people are the core space for change.

So how can we practice agency, belonging, and democracy in our relationships? How can we practice enacting power in a different way? I think one answer lies in the power of invitation. I had a provocative conversation with Matt Kolan last year, who posed this question: what would it look like to decolonize the art of invitation?

My last pre-COVID trip was to a dojo on the outskirts of Petaluma, CA for a somatics retreat on embodied leadership with the Strozzi Institute. We were asked to frame our own intentions as commitments: what is it we are living toward? This is mine:

I am a commitment to sharing my longings, from a place of invitation and noncoercion.

I’ve been intentionally trying to practice this in every part of my life: my relationship with my wife, with my children, with my parents and friends, with contacts and colleagues in my professional life. And I continue to be amazed at this seeming paradox: the more I let go of the outcome, the more I am truly as open to a “no” as I am hoping for a “yes”… the more likely people are to hold my longings, to accept my invitations. And the more I can trust that their “yes” is coming from a place of agency and desire, rather than grudging consent (a story I too often tell myself).


Anyway, I know there’s a lot here. I’d love to hear how others are thinking about this, sources you’re finding for attractive definitions of power, contemporary exemplars who are embodying power and leadership in an inviting way.