Issue 5.8 | June 2017

In this Article: there are two basic kinds of power in organisations, and each plays a role in achieving powerful outcomes.

by Jonathan Wilson

International business is not, very often, glamorous. There were nine of us around the table in a cramped room in a squat building squeezed between grubby condominiums and shiny hotels in a narrow Hong Kong street. We were there to build buy-in to a large multi-stakeholder process in SE Asia. Several languages were represented, but no common language.  The ability to communicate, however, was not the only concern in the room.

Whenever stakeholders gather, the distribution of power is the unstated concern of all. Who here has power? What kind of power do they have — authority, status, resources? How will this power affect my interests? How useful is my power here?

Half-way into the first morning I realized that the biggest question mark in the room hung over my head. Around the table sat power-brokers who assumed every other person was there because of his or her power. But who was this fellow sitting at the head of the table? Some had met me previously when I had performed a kind of shuttle diplomacy role to get them to the meeting. Now here I was leading the meeting. Several in the room came from cultures unfamiliar with a process facilitator, so I explained my role:

“Each of you is, in some way, a boss. That’s why you’re here.” Interested looks.

“You’re probably wondering why I’m here.” Nods. Curiosity.

“People bring me into these kinds of conversations because I’ve learned how to help leaders have effective conversations about complex issues. I’m nobody’s boss.” Some evidence of relief.

Then, with a smile, “But I am the boss of this meeting.”

People chuckled and the puzzled ones relaxed. The following days went smoothly as I got on with my job of facilitation.

Most of us think of power as very desirable. It opens up possibilities.  As such, we think of power as the capacity to decisively influence outcomes in accord with one’s interests. Or, to put it bluntly, with power I can have my way.

There are several models that categorize different types of power. I prefer to distinguish simply between the two basic types of power at work in that room in Hong Kong and, indeed, in any setting: generative power and facilitative power.

Generative Power

Generative Power is the capacity to generate a desired result directly. Wherever I can, at my own behest and without the help or permission of others, fix my car, paint a beautiful landscape, change my service provider or have an order obeyed, I have generative power. Such power is never total but, in the right conditions I can exercise my will and be reasonably certain I will have my way.

To have one’s way is not leadership. It is simply an achievement, and (at best) one limited by the finite capacities of the person exercising the power. It shuts down more possibilities than it creates. Often enough, it is destructive. Schoolyard bullies, corporate dictators and political despots all gain their reputations through the exclusive use of generative power.

At the same time, to achieve great things generative power is in fact crucial — just not very often for leaders.

Facilitative Power

The second type of power is indirect. We can exercise Facilitative Power wherever we do not have the capacity to, of our own volition, ensure an outcome. It is the capacity to create conditions in which others can exercise generative power.

Most of us grow up believing that the more one possesses generative power, the more powerful one is as a leader.  In fact, an individual’s generative power has:

  • no potential for lasting impact without the permission of a group, and
  • no potential for exponential impact except that it is harnessed and enhanced by others (however, an individual’s generative power can be used to destroy, with lasting effect).

The leaders around the table in Hong Kong believed I had no power, and therefore was not a threat. Ironically, their tacit permission for me to facilitate gave me tremendous power, just of a very different kind. It opened up more possibilities for the group than directive leadership could ever have achieved.

Facilitating a Generative Community

 Facilitative power unleashes generative power.  The ultimate outcome of facilitative power is a generative community. Here, generative power is exercised in coordination and cooperation, in pursuit of a common goal.

In contrast to common assumptions, the place for generative power is with the individuals and teams whose responsibility it is to solve the problems and create the solutions the organisation exists to deliver, while facilitative power is the domain of leaders. As one takes on greater responsibility in leadership, facilitative power becomes more significant and generative power less significant.

Two specific leadership tasks do require the exercise of generative power: discipline and rescue.  A leader uses generative power to ensure that the generative community remains aligned with its purpose (why we exist) and its ethos (how we work together).  Similarly, a crisis often necessitates directive leadership. Such use of generative power produces only a short-term save, not a long-term transformation.

Power that Unleashes Greater Power

For leaders, our access to generative power (whether status, authority, or resources) is so easy that, if we possess it, we automatically use it. True strength in leadership is to exercise exceptional restraint in the use of generative power.

Facilitative power unleashes movements, builds organisations, and even transforms governments. When my father worked among the Yali people of New Guinea for twenty years, he did not (and still does not) regard himself as a leader, precisely because he quietly exercised facilitative power. Yet today, when I visit New Guinea, I hear such comments as: “whenever I meet a highly competent indigenous leader in organisations or government, I often discover they are Yali. It seems many of the best leaders come from there.”

In resisting easy use of their own generative power, leaders in fact multiply generative power far beyond their personal limits.


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