The Privilege to Influence: A Global Leadership Module

The Privilege to Influence: A Global Leadership Module

Nancy J. Adler
1991 3M Teaching Fellow

o lead comes from the latin verb “agree” meaning to set into motion. The Anglo-Saxon origins of the word to lead come from “laedere,” meaning people on a journey. To day’s meaning of the word leader therefore has the sense of someone who sets ideas, people, organizations, and societies in motion; someone who takes the worlds of ideas, people, organizations and societies on a journey. To lead such a journey requires vision, courage, and influence. To lead requires a deep and owned understanding of power.

Power is the privilege to influence. It is impossible to discuss leadership without addressing the issue of power-how leaders gain it and how they use it. Most conceptualizations of power, however, have been strongly influenced by twentieth-century Western conceptualizations, many with a subtext of hierarchical “power over” that no longer fits either the context of flattened, networked organizations or the more inclusive values of the twenty-first century. To many people, including the increasing numbers of women leaders ‘and leaders from non-Western cultures, traditional twentieth-century notions and definitions of power are antithetical to the leaders they most admire and the styles of leadership they most want to exhibit. This session allows participants to identify their own definitions, meanings, and approaches to power. Taking an inductive approach, it allows participants to understand the types of contexts that facilitate and hinder their uses of power. One outcome of the session is a robust, richly textured, non-culture specific, owned conceptualization of power that is relevant to twenty-first century global leadership.


Power involves the ability to influence the thoughts and actions of others. In the session, we first introduce traditional conceptualizations of power that rely heavily on the notion of “power over” and then contrast them with more contemporary definitions of power to, power with, and power within. The group then brainstorms their own associations with the word “power.” Note that most groups produce a disproportionate number of negative associations.

To expand the meaning of power, we shift from a verbal to a visual process. We introduce the process with a selection of one or two quotes, such as the following:

ARISTOTLE “The soul … never thinks without a picture.”

IONESCO “Not everything is unsayable in words, only the living truth.”

ARTHUR FRANK An aphorism by Goethe: “Every day one should read a poem, look at a work of art and listen to some music.”

Arthur Frank says, in What Does it Mean to be Human?: “I’ve carried that aphorism with me as an aesthetic credo that the mundane deserves to be informed by the artistic.” Participants are then invited to create their own visual image of power using an array of art supplies, but no words. As each person completes their power-art, they sign it (thus designating ownership) and post it. A vernissage (French term for a traditional first night art opening at a gallery) follows for everyone to view the created power-art. Then, in small groups, colleagues of each artist interpret the various notions of power expressed in the paintings. As each painting is discussed, the group begins to understand the range of participants’ implicit notions of power.

After the meaning of each art work has been discussed, the group creates a collective symbol of power. The outcome of this process, which allows the group to consolidate their notions of power, is a robust and owned definition of power. Paradoxes in the notion of power are able to be discussed, without either rejecting power altogether or labeling it as negative.

Introductory paragraph based on Nancy J. Adler. “Global Leadership: Women Leaders,” Management International Review, 37 (I), (1997): 171-196.