Cover Image
close this bookTraining for Elected Leadership - The Councillor as Power Broker (HABITAT, 1994, 18 p.)
close this folderPart I - The Councillor as Power Broker
View the documentDefinition
View the documentSummary
View the documentReflection
View the documentConcepts and ideas
View the documentReflection
View the documentSome miscellaneous thoughts about power
View the documentYou and your hired help
View the documentForging an effective partnership
View the documentKey points
View the documentReferences

Some miscellaneous thoughts about power

Why is it that elected leaders who have so much formal power have so much trouble getting things done? Aggravating, isn’t it? One possibility is the belle (or is it a myth?) that power really does come with the office or position of “The city charter says I can do this and I can do that. But, when I do these things, nothing much happens.” Is it possible that those who are “not in power” (the powerless) are refusing to accept the definition of oneself that put forward by those in power? Elizabeth Janeway, in her provocative bookPowers of the Weak, says the “ordered use of the power to disbelieve is the first power of the weak. 113 And, their grasp of power begins when they reject the definition that those in power have given themselves.

Centuries ago, in ancient Greece, Demosthenes counselled his people:

There is one common safeguard in the nature of prudent man, which is a good security for all. What do I mean? Mistrust. Keep this, hold on to this; preserve this only, and you will never be injured.

Perhaps a bit overstated, but he provides insight into the dilemma that many public officials face when there is an aura of mistrust. The economically and socially disadvantaged, and we might add the politically disenfranchised, have a great capacity to disbelieve what comes out of city halls around the world, particularly in the way of policies. This disbelief, or mistrust, is often well earned and one of the biggest stumbling blocks to effective local government.

2. Power is often perceived as a top-down phenomenon to be exercised by those in authority when, in reality, power flows in all directions. This can be a humbling lesson for many who aspire to “positions of power” only to realize that their power resides largely in the capacity of others to believe in them. For,’ the councillor who represents the community, it should be reassuring, to know that the potential to empower the community is everywhere.

3. Power relationships are dynamic, not static, and subject to constant renegotiation. The council’s need to keep in touch with the community doesn’t stop with election to public office. It may, in fact, become elevated to a higher level of interaction and bargaining. As soon as you take office, your source of power is not in the “office” you hold; it’s in your ability to maintain trust and connections with those who permit you to use the power of your office effectively.

4. The absence of power is often more pervasive within local elected bodies than the use of power. Sometimes, elected bodies are reactive and not proactive even though rapid changes are taking place that are predictable.

5. These power voids make individuals and communities vulnerable to their environment. When those we elect to lead us don’t elect to lead us, we feel vulnerable, and often cheated. Power is a curious commodity. When it’s not exercised, its absence is sometimes felt more strongly than its presence.

6. Because of this, it may be more effective to fill those power vacuums, and manage them, than to initiate new power surges. There’s a well known problem-solving approach that says it is more effective to remove the constraints that are keeping the problem from being solved than to reinforce those forces driving for a solution. It may also be true of the use of power.

7. Given these assumptions, the exercise of elected leadership power is a process of interaction and cooperation, involving constant negotiation between those who perceive they have power and those who perceive they don’t. Part of this negotiation process is to assure the elected leaders that their use of power is within the bounds of acceptability within a relationship that sanctions its use and validates its right.

8. Sharing power is not the same as giving it away. Some hold the belief that power is a zero-sum game., In other words, there’s only so much to go around. If I give it to you, or lose it to you in a bargaining process, then don’t have it. From this viewpoint I’ve lost. But power is like love. If you share it with someone, you haven’t lost it. In fact, you probably have more than you started with.