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  • Writer's pictureTania Luna

The Power of Sharing Power

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

There’s an idea that has spread far across the world and seeped deep into most of our cultures. It’s the belief that humans hold power over all other animals. But this assumption about how we use power stretches even farther than our treatment of animals and touches everything in our lives from our personal relationships to our workplace dynamics.

A power paradigm shift

We’ve been taught to believe that power is something we hold over others or something others hold over us. That it is a means of controlling or being controlled. That as one individual’s power grows, others’ power dwindles. This paradigm is evident in who we eat but also how we raise our children, teach our students, and lead our companies.

In my new book, LEAD TOGETHER: Stop Squirreling Away Power and Build a Better Team, I propose a paradigm shift. So many species (our own included) are hurting from our deep-seated ‘power-over’ approach. What if, instead, we embrace a model that the 19th century scholar Mary Parker Follett called ‘power-with’? In a power-with paradigm, we use the power we have (both formal and informal) to grow the power of those around us. In this way, our collective capacity grows, and our flourishing becomes mutual.

4 power-with principles at work

Though my passion is to help build a power-with world where we share space and respect with all living beings, my expertise is in the workplace. So I wrote LEAD TOGETHER to illustrate how we can improve our relationship with power at work and build more vibrant, resilient, and capable teams.

The book is grounded in psychology and full of practical tools but written in the form of a story about Sam Squirrel. Sam (who is, in fact, a squirrel) is the branch manager of Nuts for You, Inc. — an acorn gathering company that’s facing a devastating forest recession. In the face of so much change and uncertainty, he comes to find that his command-and-control, top-down leadership strategy is no longer working. Productivity plummets and squirrels begin to quit and leave for jobs in the city. To save his company, and maybe even the forest, Sam has to find a new way to lead.

Through his adventures, he learns four power-with principles that I’ll share here, along with a glimpse at how these principles show up at the heart of all our work at Scarlet Spark:

  1. Follow a purpose, not a person: Shift focus away from trying to please bosses and toward doing what’s best for the purpose of the organization. This means equipping everyone with a clear understanding of why their role exists and how it links up to the purpose of the organization. And it means shrinking power distance and creating checks and balances so that leaders never loom too large. At Scarlet Spark, we often use this principle to help organizations develop a more clear and empowering vision, mission, strategy, objectives, and role descriptions along with two-way assessments between leaders and their teams. As a result, people begin to make better decisions and take more thoughtful action without waiting for orders from “above.”

  2. Rely on context, not control: Instead of dictating exactly what people should do, give everyone access to the context they need to make good decisions. The more clearly we understand reasons, the less we need rules, and the more fulfilling our work becomes. At Scarlet Spark, we find ourselves using the word “context” over and over when we help our clients give feedback, delegate work, and lead change. Not only does explicitly shared context create a greater sense of trust and transparency, it also helps leaders get a better understanding of their own thinking and make better decisions.

  3. Be a cultivator, not a collector: Rather than trying to recruit the perfect people from a finite crop of talent to join your team, shift energy toward cultivating an infinite field. Remove unnecessary barriers to hiring and promotions (like years of experience), and invest in building the skills, knowledge, and confidence of your team. In this way, team capacity grows alongside diversity, equity, and engagement. This is a principle we lean on frequently at Scarlet Spark when we help our clients build better hiring, onboarding, and employee development practices as well as a habit of growing other people’s skills rather than doing everything alone. Over time, it results in more stable and resilient organizations with leaders who are no longer burning out from carrying the weight of too much responsibility on their shoulders.

  4. Build a community, not a crowd: Treat your organization as an ever-evolving experience you are co-creating with others instead of simply inviting people to join what already exists. Rather than trying to get ‘buy-in’ for your decisions, policies, and changes, create space for others to develop them with you so you can get ‘build-in’ instead. This does not mean making all decisions by consensus. It means distributing decision-making responsibility among more people, gathering and using more input, or giving veto power to members of your team. In just about every client engagement we have at Scarlet Spark, we nudge leaders to consider how they can get input and involvement from their team. This can be as substantial as launching a task force to solve an important problem or as small as asking for feedback. Not only does employee and volunteer participation result in better decisions and a stronger company, it also sparks people’s passion and sustains their commitment to their work.

My hope in writing LEAD TOGETHER was to help more groups of all shapes and sizes try out power-with ways of working together. But most of all, I want to help grow the power of the animal protection movement. When organizations that help animals are more resilient, creative, and capable – when their teams grow more powerful together – they bring us all closer to a power-with world where all living beings can flourish together.

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