Creating a Culture of Shared Power

The myth of scarcity says there isn’t enough power and we each have to fight for our piece of the pie. But in fact there is enough power for everyone, and the supply is unlimited. Many associate power with domination and oppression, but that’s not the essence of power. Power can be compounded and multiplied, like two friends at the gym working together to both become strong. Or one person can leverage their power by giving someone a hand up a steep incline. In the same way, we can cultivate a shared-power culture where all needs matter.

Power is simply the ability to meet needs. If we’re powerless, we focus on our own needs, but real power means we mobilize resources to meet the needs of all. I’ve seen plenty of people from colonized countries with limited access to resources, barely enough food to survive, who focus on others more than themselves. Yet I also know people with millions of dollars obsessed with hoarding. We can recognize true wealth and true power as the honoring of the well-being of all people. From this perspective, there are three kinds of power:

●      Power-over

●      Power-within

●      Power-with

As leaders we can cultivate healthy use of power. Moreover, different forms of power are not mutually exclusive. Protective use of force draws on all three kinds of power: power-over, power-within, and power-with. 


In many organizational cultures, the most prevalent form of power is power-over. This kind of power is typically reflected via structural power. Seniority, experience, systemic power can also act to reinforce power-over dynamics. When we dominate others, we have the power to get them to do what we want. The obvious forms of power-over are violence, force, or threats, but there are much more subtle forms of power-over, including rewards and protective use of force. 

We have power-over others when we hire, fire, promote or determine salaries and perks. Power-over also manifests in how decisions are made, how information is shared, and how resources are allocated . Whenever we act in ways that lead othersto submit regardless of their needs, we are acting from a place of  power-over. , This  usually eads to submission or rebellion, neither of which contribute to empowered relationships. Since power-over is an insidious part of the dominant culture and how it functions, it can be very difficult for either party to see it or address it. Rather, it is accepted as normal and rarely questioned or challenged. 


Power-within refers to the true strength associated with courage, faith, discernment  emotional intelligence (self-management) and self-discipline. Self-confidence comes from knowing ourselves intimately and being grounded in our power within.

Power-within arises from deep connections: to ourselves, to others, and to the environment. While power-over promotes fear and aggression, power-within awakens love, peace, mutuality, mutual care and respect and contentment. Reclaiming personal power is a life-sustaining, generative process. One way to increase  our power-within is to develop power-with. When we rely on empowerment to develop power-with, we express our faith that people are able to develop further capacity. Power-within and power-with augment each other. We experience joy in our own unfolding and in the unfolding of others.


Power-with reflects the ability to work with others to accomplish results through collaboration. Our ability to listen, empathize with, and understand others helps us to cooperate with others to achieve shared ends. When we embody power-with, we’re aware of both our own interests and others’ interests—their feelings, concerns,, and needs. Honoring everyones’ perspectives and needs ultimately benefits the whole.Each time we choose to relate to power conscientiously, we can have an impact and shift the power dynamics This leads to fresh thinking, new ways of relating, and social evolution. 

By seeking the inherent power in any relationship, the whole is greater than the parts. Synergy is achieved when we recognize every stakeholder’s value and interests—everyone’s needs are important. 

Power is inherently fragile. When people lead through power-over, they tend to hide their weaknesses, afraid or ashamed to reveal their shadow side. People who lead through power-with explore their darkness and embrace their aliveness and authenticity. By sharing their vulnerability, they reveal the source of their inner power—their willingness to heal, grow and change. A power-with style of leadership recognizes every person’s unique gifts, which uplifts and inspires people, helping them to become the best they can be.

Power-over structures require collusion; where people give up their power. When we choose to obey absurd rules, do meaningless work, and let other people control access to resources, we accept power-over dynamics. Oppression requires consent. But why do we consent? The reasons are complex. We all have been educated to obey and respect power structures. We may be disconnected from ourselves and our own power, as a result of personal or collective trauma (resulting from systemic racism, sexism, classism, ableism etc) When we armor ourselves or separate from our life energy, we lose access to our courage. we don’t take initiative, miss opportunities, and  disempower ourselves.

We do not have to give away our power. Instead of power-over relationships, we can intentionally create power-with relationships. In a healthy world, we hold power at the personal level and don’t have to give that away to “experts” who tell us what to do. We aren’t so easy to control when we have deep personal awareness. Why? Because we don’t get stuck in guilt, shame, or fear when we’re aware of life-giving forces such as connection, collaboration, dignity and self-respect. Because our energy is flowing, we don’t  get ourselves into relationships or dynamics that diminish our energy, power or potential. Our natural forces within empower us at the personal and global levels.

How do we cultivate power-with relationships and a culture where all needs matter? Traditional problem solving usually means identifying the problem and using unilateral control to create the solution. One person makes the decision right away, without getting buy-in. As a result, the problem-solving time is short, but without buy-in, the decisions take much longer to implement.

A more efficient approach asks stakeholders to explore the problem in terms of interests and needs before designing a solution. Solutions discovered via facilitated agreements take longer to create but result in faster implementation, less resistance,higher engagement, and ultimately save time overall. We “Go Slow to Go Fast.”

As sweet as this all sounds, shifting away from our familiar, habitual ways of accumulating power can be a painful process. It’s not easy unless we get clarity about our motives. What happens when we delve into why we choose complacency, demand our rights, or insist on being heard? The answers uncover our own hidden desires. To step into our personal power and fully honor the power of others, awareness of our inner needs is vital. With that awareness we can see the humanity of people in authority roles and re-design our relationships. We can ensure that mutuality, learning, collaboration and even pleasure,  fun and joy are values that we live and honor on a daily basis.

Personal awareness is the key to empowering ourselves and others. Even if we have support networks that validate and foster deep change, it can take a long time to change the world through individual personal awareness. Since we work on ourselves only after our basic survival needs have been met, personal growth work tends to be a middle-class activity for people with privilege. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. On the contrary, when we transform ourselves, we move into new areas of transformation and create environments where everyone has power.  That’s how we co-create change in organizations and on a social-cultural level.  

Written by Martha Lasley and Dian Killian

For more articles like this, go to the