Power – Is it a Zero Sum Game?

Regardless of your political persuasion, one has to be impressed with the impact and influence of Nancy Pelosi – US House Speaker and likely again the House Speaker in 2019.   Nothing is gained by demonizing her, if you disagree with her policies.   What I am looking at here is one particular line that she spoke during an interview with TIME magazine a while back:  “no one gives you power.   You have to take it from them.” 

I beg to differ.   Such a statement presumes that there is only so much power to go around and whoever has more of it, can leverage that power to make a difference – that is, to secure the outcomes you want.   But one of the key principles of both public governance and of non-profit institutions is that it is necessarily the case that power is shared.   No one has absolute power; there are always checks and balances.   And more to the point, more gets done – more civic and institutional good – when we learn to use our power, whatever power is given to us, in a way that is collaborative:  that is, that our power, whatever it is, is actually leveraged against the power of the other. 

Without doubt there will be times in which we come up against the power of the other – the US president with Congress, or the United Kingdom Prime Minister with Parliament or a church pastor with the church board – where the limits of power that you long to exercises are limited.   Someone restrains or blocks or vetoes what you had hoped to see happen through the exercise of the power you have.   We can bemoan this or come to see that autocracy serves no one well:   however benevolent it may seem to be, unchecked power is inherently corrupting.  We need accountability and thus have to live with those times when we face limits and restraints. 

But more, it is not merely about having more power.   It is about learning to exercise the power you have, limited or not, in a way that is leveraged off the power of the other.  

Could it be that pastors need strong and powerful boards?   And that presidents need a strong and powerful Congress?  Or that the president of a university needs a strong and powerful board of trustees?  The answer, of course, is “yes”.  And what this means is that we affirm the principle of shared power and then seek to empower those around us so that they can serve the institution effectively.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.