Why Understanding Power as Energy is essential to Making Change
I’m finishing up a course this week, at the Social Innovation Change Initiative Center for Public Leadership. The course was Power for All, or how we can build systems and selves that understand the way power operates and moves in a system in order to create change. One of my biggest learnings was how power acts less as a solid compound and more as an energy force and this force dictates what organizational changes, social movements, and people build power and who lets it go. Traditional thinking takes it that power is hierarchical-and those at the top of the food chain have more of it- but what I learned through the six weeks is that power exists across seniority and networks like the advice Network and the trust Network make it so that there are certain people in organizations that hold more power. But we also learned its fluid and what works in one environment won’t work in another.
And so when we seek to change organizations, systems, and societies, we have to understand the constraints on systems to make it so that power is concentrated and because of this, it can be changed, too. Rarely did we look at cases where someone trying to combat a current understanding of power succeeded. Often these institutions were established and as we learned people in power perpetuate themselves and people like them to stay in power. Taking this approach, our protagonists would always be pushing up against resistance.
Rather in a lot of the cases, the change maker redefined the environment. They brokered information, found something valuable, and created new understandings of value that allowed them to negotiate and leverage that value creation socially. They navigated and worked to get people that everyone goes to for advice and those who people trusted and respected in their communities and organizations to their side. This allowed them to continuously have the energetic flow of power shift in their direction. By doing this, they were able to shift gender dynamics in a community through solar power, coach women without homes to gain employment, and create a brand new set of sustainability standards for businesses.
At the end of the course I found myself reflecting on the growing sense of stagnancy that has engulfed sentiment at organizations and societies today. This feeling that despite our best efforts power is entrenched in archaic systems and the only people that can make change are currently in power. It made me hungry for the value creation, for the redefinition of what’s important, and for the monitoring of power as this energy that moves back and forth between entities all the time and that we have the power to make change with.