Political Sex Scandals Expose Three Kinds of Power

Yet another politician embroiled in a sex scandal is teetering on the edge of a fall from power.  As we roll our eyes or hunt for the salacious details, I’m drawn to the exploration of power – who gets it, how hard is it to hold onto, what is it anyway, oh, and how can I get more of it?

What is power, that illusive thing we yearn for or push against?  Power – as in the personal kind – is one of those terms, that for most of us, we have some vague sense of but would be hard pressed to actually define.

The definitions I find most helpful come from ecofeminist author, Starhawk, in Truth or Dare, Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery. In this book she describes three kinds of power we humans have: power-over, power-from-within and power-with.

Power-over is the one my generation loves to push against (that is we did until we got to the top – since then we’ve seemed to grow quite fond of it).  Power-over is the power that comes from position within the hierarchy.  That can be a position within an organization like the power that comes with the role of supervisor or CEO or owner.  It can be the power that comes from the culture, for example, like the power of the police over the speeding driver or the power of money to influence and acquire.  The physical force of violence and war are examples of power-over in its most raw form.

Elected officials have a tremendous amount of power-over.  They get to make decisions that will impact millions of us (and some times the whole planet) for years to come.  They have many opportunities to express their opinions and have people listen to them.  They get to be in charge, to take charge, to execute their will to be or to do or to have.  (And I hear they have a good health care package.)  All of this power, though, is easily lost in the next election.

Power-from-within, on the other hand, is not up for vote.  This is the power of self that each one of us has.  It is the combined force of our self esteem, our emotional intelligence, our sense of our own moral compass, our connection to our core values, our spiritual awareness (if that supports our belief system), and our knowledge of ourselves. It is our ability to navigate the river of life in reference to what has meaning for us.  When wielding our power-from-within we have an inner locus of control, meaning our reference point is within us.  While we love and care for others and want the respect our our tribe, we are not tossed about by the need to please or to control others.

Dr. Geo Trevarthen, celtic scholar and author, talks about the grail-like container of self that is both the vessel and the ambrosial fluid within the vessel.  If our container of self has holes in it, our fluid life force can leak right out.  Or if we constantly over-extend ourselves we are likely to “burn out” our inner juice, our energy.

As adults it’s up to us to stoke our power-from-within by taking good care of our container of self and keeping our inner juice replenished.  That’s what personal life coaching is often about – how to build individual power-from-within.  When we have solid containers of self and we’ve found ways to keep them full of our life force, then we are much more likely to thrive right through the many challenges of our lives.  If, though, our power only comes from what position or money or fame gives us, then losing any of these can be devastating. (And as a fallen politician things could be quite bleak until we get our really high paying lobbying job.)

Power-with is the power of partnership.  It’s the power of the political party, the labor union, the family (when functional), the carpool, the co-op.  When we combine our power-from-within with others’, we create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.  We create a new system with a shared purpose.  And systems, like people, are adaptable, generative, and capable.  Relationship coaching is all about helping partnerships – whether those of two individuals or large organizations – develop their power-with each other.

The vast majority of the issues we are addressing today are way more than any one even extremely powerful person can completely solve on their own.  Despite our many stories of awesomely capable superheroes, the age of the power of the individual is over.  (Yikes, did I just say that?  Yes, I did.  More posts to follow this, I know.)   Yes, we can and do, each of us, make a difference.  And, when we work well together we make more of a difference, we have even more power.  Power-with is the answer to all of the really tough questions.

So, for this now infamous politician facing his tough questions, I’m wondering about the strength of his power-with — his wife, his party and his constituents.  I’m imagining his power-from-within is being sorely tested.  Since power-over is the hardest of the three to hold on to, especially without the power of self and partnership, time will tell us more of this story, won’t it?  Forget the photos and internet sex, the really hot part of this one is the flow of power.


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