Theories of Power

In my last post I introduced the topic of power and leadership, gave a short outline of where we’ll go with it, and then gave a brief introduction to the idea of critical theory—the lens that will overlay our look at power and leadership.

Remember that critical theory at its most basic is the use of rationality to expose norms, values, and practices—implicit or explicit—that shape an organization or society. The goal in exposing all of these factors is to free humans from anything that limits their flourishing. We’ll come back to that.

A separate note: in writing this blog, it was really tempting to make copious references to the recent election process in the US. However, I’m going to refrain from that and invite you, as you read, to reflect on the dynamics of power you observed in both that process and in recent news. Seems we are surrounded on all sides by questions of power.

Now on to this idea of power, starting with some of the great social theorists’ perspectives.

Karl Marx located power solely within the realm of economics. For Marx, people exercised power to achieve economic gain. Emile Durkheim observed other social factors at play in the human desire for power. Durkheim noted that some people pursue and exercise power because it fits with their belief system: they are called to be powerful, and exercising power is their role (and concurrently some people give power to others because they believe that is their role as well), while others pursue it for social status, regardless of any economic gain achieved. If we look at the various cultures and people groups we work with, we can observe a wide variety of views on power, who should exercise it (gender, caste, etc.), and how it is given and grasped (inheritance, violence, manipulation, election, and some combinations of all of the above).

Enter Max Weber, arguably the father of modern sociology (he’s kind of a big deal), who simply stated that power is the ability to “realize one’s own will even against the resistance of others.” As I reflect on that statement, I believe it clarifies the concept of leadership as well—exerting one’s will on others. That may sound crass, but I think that is essentially what leaders are called to do. They can do it ethically or unethically. They can do it through consensus, care, and relationship, through listening and reflecting, or they can exert their will through fear and manipulation. But in the end, a leader is called to willful action in a specific community.

How does this play out in schools?

ANYWHERE there is an interface of humans, there are power dynamics. Think about that statement. Think of your staff room. Think of your playground (and remember your own time on the playground as a child). Think of your church. Think of your family. As a leader in a Christian school, I believe we are responsible to be keenly aware of the dynamics of power at play in our schools. Awareness opens the door to reflection, and reflection gives us the opportunity to move toward facilitating social dynamics of power that are just and ethical and allow for human flourishing.

When I go through an exercise of reflecting on the power dynamics in the various sectors of my life (church, school, home, government, etc.), it is clear to me that much power is exercised outside of official roles. Yes, there is power directly attached to our roles in leadership. As a school principal/superintendent/vice principal, the school board has given you a level of power, as has the local state or province. And let’s not minimize that reality. For some people, just the power imbued in your role intimidates them. It means, at a very basic level, that our words and actions carry weight.

However, so much power is NOT connected to an official role or position.

Weber clarified one aspect of this reality by separating power from authority. For Weber, power is the ability to get people to do what you want by positon, force, coercion, or fear. Adolf Hitler was a very powerful person. Authority, on the other hand, is the ability to move people in a direction because they believe in or trust you based on your actions and character. Mother Theresa was a person of deep authority.

Next post we’ll spend more time engaging some of the factors at play in the arena of power. Until then, some questions for reflection: What power dynamics (social norms, factors, and assumed values) do you see at play in the various areas of your school community? Who exercises power, and how do they do that? How are you gaining authority (implicit power) beyond the position (explicit power) you’ve been given in leadership?

– David Loewen

Leave a Comment

Filed under Governance

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *