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Power With Vs. Power Over: Where Do YOU Stand?

June 12, 2011
Updated March 1, 2016

Do you like to be told what to do, to be given orders without being allowed the opportunity to contribute your ideas?No?

Then this post is for you.

Do you prefer to give orders without allowing others to question them or to provide their own ideas and contributions?


Then this post is REALLY for you.

Command and control, long the domain of those holding the levers of authority and power, is an anachronism in a world characterized by complex, inter-connected events. To believe that the elite few in management have all the answers and possess the key to the correct path to the future is a fool’s game.

One has only to look at the corporate mistakes of the past (e.g., Home Depot under Bob Nardelli, General Motors, Chrysler, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Sunbeam) to realize that a command and control approach to organizational “leadership” will eventually implode. Some organizations limp forward; others disappear.

I place the word leadership in quotations because of the reflex by society to refer to anything involving managing as just that, leadership. But leadership requires a followership, willing and committed people who share a common purpose and vision. Management, a vital function in organizations, is the complement to leadership. Both are essential in today’s organizations.

Trying to escape command and control is exceedingly difficult, considering that those in positions of authority today were themselves mentored by individuals who were steeped in this mindset.

One of Baby Boomers’ primary traits is that of compliance to authority. We have competed in a highly competitive and volatile labor market over the years, and as such developed deference to authority. We learned command and control from our parents and bosses, and in turn often resorted to that management approach in the workplace. It’s about Power-Over with Boomers.

Contrast this to Generation X, which grew up in the Boomers’ looming shadow and which has tried to break free of their influence, one aspect being command and control. Now look at self-confident Generation Y (Millennials), which has no patience for control-style management and which is far more collaborative than Boomers. For Gen Y it’s all about Power-With.

Given that many Boomers will be in the labor market for up to another 15 to 20 years, the very different values possessed by the generations will create escalating tensions in the workplace.

What’s needed is a deep shift in how we perceive and practice the combined art of leadership and management.

The issues and challenges we face are far too complex for the traditional command and control approach. It’s not just a matter of responding to the different value systems held by Gens X and Y.

It’s more profound than that.

If those individuals leading organizations truly wish to see extraordinary things accomplished, then Power-Over must be replaced by Power-With. It’s about co-creation, in which people feel part of a bigger picture, where they take initiative, experiment, commit to the organization and rush to work every day wanting to make a difference.

However, this will not happen–cannot happen–when people are treated like dunces, being told what to do, how to do it, when to do it and where to do it.

Where do YOU stand on power-over vs. power-with?

We need to give each other the space to grow, to be ourselves, to exercise our diversity. We need to give each other space so that we may both give and receive such beautiful things as ideas, openness, dignity, joy, healing, and inclusion.
– Max DePree


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7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2011 5:30 pm

    This is very interesting – and it sheds some light on my own workplace conflict – I am a Gen Xer – and the problem I have is with boomer managers who derived power from their position, rather than from within personal power – and I do not respect authority blindly, or that which is misused or not well seated on the head that wears the crown – often because the lack of fit is a measure of the competancy.

    THis is a level of analysis that I haven’t thought of but explains in a ruch why the same language is spoken, but the references and meaning are light years apart. thank you

    • June 29, 2011 10:22 pm

      Good observations. My hunch is that Gen X and especially Gen Y see leadership as being earned, in contrast to Boomers who believe they’re leaders when appointed to managerial positions.

    • June 29, 2011 10:30 pm

      PS-I checked out your blog. Fascinating. Send me an email if you have a minute….JIm

  2. June 18, 2011 9:33 pm

    I can see that in the case of a company, the organization’s priorities might not align with a boss’.

  3. June 16, 2011 6:20 am

    I’d like to suggest an additional point. I think getting along in the workplace is less about command and control as much as it is about PLEASING YOUR BOSS and TAKING CARE OF WHAT YOUR BOSS THINKS IS IMPORTANT.

    I think many of the issues arising in the workplace come from a basic misunderstanding of the importance of pleasing your boss. Too many people are busy doing what THEY think the job SHOULD be (from their own perspective) and are wondering at the same time why their boss is dissatisfied! Thinking back in my own career, I see I often made the same mistake.

    It’s REALLY important (as an employee) to really focus on FINDING OUT what your BOSS thinks is important. Many bosses don’t clearly communicate this. I think many bosses could improve their management skills by really defining to THEMSELVES what is important in their employees, and working on COMMUNICATING that to employees. Employees need to ASK their boss what is most important and what the boss’ priorities are if the boss does not communicate that fact, or if the employee is having trouble prioritizing between different objectives or a very heavy workload.

    These points were recently brought home to me when I fired a household employee. Whenever I asked her to do something, I usually got the response, “I’m busy working now!” (on what SHE thought was important, NOT what I thought was important).

    The straw which broke the camel’s back was as follows. I asked her to sweep the walk in front of the door on a daily basis before clients arrived at my home, and I got a lot of lies and excuses about it for several weeks. For example, finding it dirty and covered with leaves, “Oh, I did it earlier and the wind blew the leaves back,” or “It’s time for me to leave now, so I can’t do it now…” So, I thought I could solve the problem by asking her to do it at EXACTLY 10:00 AM (before clients arrived at 10:30) AND at 4:00 PM (before clients arrived at 4:30). Instead I got a 10-minute argument about, “WHY should I have to do that twice a day, etc., etc.” I finally countered by telling her that as an employee, she did not have the RIGHT to ask why, but that I would explain it to her anyway (which I did). She left on Friday without doing the work.

    I met at the door upon her arrival Monday morning with the broom. Since one of the excuses I’d received the week before was, “Oh, I can’t do it in my indoor house clothes–somebody might see me in them, and I can’t have that…,” I told her, “Perhaps you’d like to do it quickly NOW before changing into your house clothes…”

    Her response was, “I can’t do it in my good clothes! I will get them dusty!” So I replied, “So you wear whichever clothes you would like, but the thing is, I would like it done NOW, the FIRST thing…”

    At that point, she looked me straight in the eye and said, “I’M NEVER GOING TO DO THAT WORK; I’M GOING TO WORK INSIDE THE HOUSE, AND THAT’S IT!” So I told her if she was unwilling to do it, then she was fired. (She then began threatening me and shouting and screaming, but was still not willing to do the work…) She then had the nerve to tell my husband when he called her, “I don’t know what’s wrong with your crazy wife…I was just going to change into my work clothes, and she started screaming at me…!”)

    • June 16, 2011 11:45 am

      I hear what you’re saying, Lynne; my wife and I went through three home cleaning firms a few years ago because they weren’t doing the work to our satisfaction. However, that’s a service supplier – customer relationship. I hear about employeed needing to please their bosses. I disagree with that stand. Yes, some of the key roles of management are to plan and assign work, ensure it’s distributed fairly and efficiently, address budget isues, etc. The leadership dimension (management’s sister) is to align staff towards a shared mission and vision, motivating people to self-initiate, innovate.and serve customers the best way possible.

      My long experience in government was too many managers and executives serving upwards, seeking the next promotion by sucking up to their superiors. Too often, what pleased the manager or executive was not necessarily aligned with true organizational priorities and goals. The public sector is far more dynamic than business, with more competing constituencies: Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Members of Parliament, taxpayers, citizens, stakeholders (eg, provincial governments, municipalities, unions) – each of whom has its own needs, wants and perspectives.

      I recall many redundant discussions at work on WHO the true client was: Minister? Citizen, etc.

    • June 29, 2011 5:34 pm

      but bosses need to remember that employees are people too and if you want them to please you, then you as the boss need to make sure your employees are pleased as well.

      too many bosses cannot tell the difference between an employee and a servant – employees provide a service that does not make them servants

      so you got into a battle of wills which escalated into firing untimatums – so perhaps finding out what the objection to the task is or perhaps it was less to do with the task and more the taskmaster’s approach to the task

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