Just How Powerful Are You?

When you write online, no one checks to see if you have a journalism degree before they start to read. If you experience an earthquake and want to report on its danger or safety, no one asks your credentials before you report to Ushahidi. And if you were interested a creating a new company, you can simply initiate the idea and get funding through Kickstarter or Indie GoGo.

The gateways of power have changed.

Or have they?

When I look around, I see a culture that honors being prepared, doing the right things to get ahead, and achieving more and more, starting with our education — we need to go to the right high school to get into the right college, to get the right job after college. Our culture also honors fancy titles and brand affiliations, as visibly celebrated by the first question most Westerners ask on meeting someone new: “And who are you?” It’s as if knowing one’s title and affiliation will let you know if a person’s ideas are even worth considering. And of course, premiere venture capitalists talk with pride about “pattern recognizing” for success, signaling that they typically fund a 23-year old from Stanford over say, women, people of color, or those with a more diverse life experience. All this, even though research shows creativity and innovation peak later in life.

So, which is it?

I’d like to explore this topic with you by sharing two arguments about what defines power today.

Argument 1: You Are Powerful Beyond Measure

Academic degrees, once a status differentiator, are no longer required to create good ideas. After all, Peter Thiel pays kids to leave school. Title and status are no longer essential. Opportunities that were once vetted opportunities — limited to a select few — are now available to many.

Case in point: Crowdsourcing solutions often allow us to include voices and talent we’ve never heard before. One such “game,” Fold It, allows any individual to work with sequencing amino acids to figure out how that protein is going to fold. This particular work is very important to research and medicine, and is usually conducted by scientists with PhDs. But when Fold It studied who was the best protein folder in the world, it wasn’t someone they “expected” to see. Instead, it was someone who is an executive assistant by day — a woman — and is the world’s best scientific protein folder at night. This individual, driven by her own skills and passions, is not being assigned the work, nor being vetted to do the work, but is simply doing the work.

The Social Era unlocks new doors of both who can contribute and what can be created, and thus changes the very source of power itself. Crowdsourcing, SaaS models, open source, social networks, virtual workforces and other new meshy processes, tools, and business models have enabled new ways to create value. And, just as the Social Era shifts how an organization can create, deliver and capture value across its business model, it shifts — of course — the source of power for each of us, too.

The ingredient level of the social era starts with and is built off a single unit, that of a social human. Where the industrial era rewarded accreditations and employee numbers, the Social Era will reward those with the ability to connect, create, and contribute. As it stands, work has been freed from jobs, and each of us can find many ways to have impact without someone else telling us “we are allowed.”

Argument 2: Power is a Limited Commodity

We still live in a world where being part of a powerful, exclusive group gives you power, whether that group is educational (the Ivy League, Skull and Bones, Harvard Law), professional (McKinsey, Google, Exxon Mobil), or demographic (white, male, straight). Who would argue that such affiliations no longer confer some degree of power?

I was recently talking to someone (a white male) who I considered a friend and fellow management thinker. I went to him for help crisping an idea; he gave me this advice:

“As a brown woman, your likelihood of being heard above the noise is next to nothing. For you to do so, you need to be way more edgy. But if you are too edgy, you’re not safe. As a brown woman, you need to be safe for people to hear your ideas. And so don’t be too edgy.”

I asked him if there was any specific way that any human being could actually do what he suggested. He stared at the floor, and then shook his head.

Now here’s the embarrassing part. After a couple of days of retelling this story and receiving only blank stares or uncomfortable silence in return — with no one saying anything close to “this advice is stupid” — within a day or so I started to believe… that it was true. I started to believe my skin color wasn’t right to be seen as a management thinker. I started to believe that my ideas were not right because my history wasn’t right. I started to believe that what mattered was not the power of these ideas, but whether I fit the mold of a “powerful” person enough for these ideas to be seen.

Reconciling the Two Points of View

So, let me ask you: Is power that thing assigned by others? Is it about getting top grades in the right school, and having the right titles and rank at work? Is it about being born to the right parents, into the right gender, in the right country? Are you more powerful if you are on the top org chart, or less powerful if you’re at the bottom of the ladder? Do these external assignments define any of us as more or less powerful?

Or is power something that each of us manifests by knowing our purpose, applying it to what we create, and using that to define how we see ourselves in the world?

Power has been defined in terms of the ways in which you can have control over others — by paying them to do things, to direct activities, by allocating resources. In this view, some people have power and some don’t. It’s a win-lose construct.

But, the Social Era shows us that power can also come from how we create with others. In this way, power can be about what we can each affect. It comes down to contributing based on what we can each uniquely bring, something I’ve called owning our “onlyness.” When each of us recognizes our own agency, we have power enough to each create and contribute what we can.


What I see is a shift in the nature of power and influence. And I wonder if we might want to call out two specifics:

  1. Power is open. Power used to be the thing that got things done, and influence used to be the thing you used to try and get things done. But today, the power of connections, community, and shared ideas offer a different lever in what can be accomplished. It is open-source software and encyclopedias written by crowds and revolutions seeded on Internet portals. It is Kickstarter, Meetup and Ushahidi and any number of other platforms that allow disparate, diffuse strangers to marshal the kind of influence that once only centralized institutions could. This power is different than the traditional classification of hard and soft power. It is networked, engaged power.
  2. When power is assigned from the outside world (based on others’ opinions or on status), then it is power that can also be taken away by that world. But by granting ourselves agency — a power that comes from understanding our individual ability to contribute to the world — we give ourselves a power that cannot be taken back.
The traditional definitions of power suggest that power is binary, situational, or limited.
The Social Era is showing us a fuller truth about power. And it is this:

It does not define you. No. You define it.

There is a cost to defining power in the traditional, limited way. If we keep defining power in the same way, we end up staying in place. Look around. There are plenty of signs that suggest that what we’ve used so far isn’t working. The act of reimagining our own notion of power might very well be central to what happens next, in our own lives, in our organizations, and in the economies in which we live.


This post was originally posted at Harvard Business Review here, and in long form: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/04/just_how_powerful_are_you.html. As is my normal practice, I ask that you add comments directly there.

9 Replies

  1. Thank you for good points on power and sharing your personal experience and congratulation for not believing in non sense that he was trying to sell. Yes indeed power is most likely defined by the ones who have it but the ones who obey also define it. And power is abused by the ones who want to take it by force.
    Here is another point that may be worthy of your consideration; Power within itself is good or rather it simply is. The problem arises when we use is in the structure of command and obedience in any setting, be it in an educational setting as in a kindergarten or in military. In fact I don’t think there will be any military if we didn’t adopt the hierarchical system on command and obedience at the first place.
    When one feels that with power at his or her disposal he or she needs to or must control others for whatever reason then we start having problems. The social and environmental situation that we are in today is due to the millennium after millennium belief (more so in certain parts of the world) that hierarchy must be in place in every part of our lives.
    Most people believe that hierarchy exists in nature. Does not? How they see it and analyze it so; a bigger animal eats a smaller one therefor it has power and dominion over the smaller animal. Does a lion runs after a deer to show it has power and dominion over the deer or is it hungry and wants to eat? We with Middle Eastern, Asian, North African, or Western European perspectives that dominated and often enslaved other cultures want to believe it is part of nature to dominate.
    A good chief is one who facilitates well and keeps the focus on the main goal, be it a good harvest of a small corn and vegetable field, a good employee and customer relation of a corporation, or a good product. He or she can do it skillfully with a sense power and intelligence, and show great easy and confidence without demanding obedience from people he or she work with.

  2. are you a brow woman? when reading you I have never thought about your sex or race. Very nice disertation about the meaning of the power in the current days

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  4. Enjoy your posts. This one struck a chord. The social web is flattening privilege, gender, race and every other social hierarchy. I normally abhor people who leave links in comments, but you might enjoy a slide deck I did last year for 3M on the power of the new world change agent. I’m not brown, but I am a woman from an underprivileged background. I hope you find it useful. http://www.slideshare.net/itsinsider/social-change-agent-3m

    1. I really like slide 7 because of the full Wizard of Oz reference AND the call to humility. Nice contribution to the dialogue.

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