The power - and responsibility - of expertise

Recent events have led me to give considerable thought to dominant hierarchies, their inevitable collapse, and how we can best transition to a different, more balanced social network. I believe that much of this transformation is fundamentally about how we think of power.

In 1959,  social psychologists French and Raven described five bases of power:

  1. Legitimate – The ability to be an authority based on election, selection, or appointment (this is the power of a president or CEO, for example)
  2. Coercive – The ability to punish others for noncompliance (the power of police officers)
  3. Reward – The ability to compensate another for compliance (a power held by parents)
  4. Expert – Abilities based on high levels of skill and knowledge (power of doctors and lawyers)
  5. Referent – Abilities rooted in our affiliations and relationships (power of celebrities and social leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Six years later, Raven revised this model, distinguishing from expert power an additional power base: informational. Raven described informational power as the ability to control the information that others need to accomplish something. 

This addition is particularly significant given where we find ourselves today. With more information available to the collective than ever before, we all have potentially more power. Anyone with access to the Internet and the time to spare can acquire skills and knowledge as well as the ability to connect with and influence others.

Many professionals and organizations are seizing this opportunity by sharing information through content marketing as a way to highlight their expertise while also building trust with the people they sell to and serve. There is an interesting tension between this and the declining trust in legitimate and coercive forms of power

Of course the power of being a trusted source of information can also be exploited, which is what I'd like to expand upon here. You see, despite our skepticism and even cynicism, we are still habitually looking to and relying on traditional forms and symbols of power.

I'll use my own experience as an example. As we are all taught to do, I've reached out to numerous "experts" over the years (doctors, lawyers, therapists, coaches, etc.). The few who did have the information I needed to make significant progress were those who'd been there before, who were willing to put down their powerful armor and weapons and simply show me their hard-earned scars.

I discovered that I prefer gurus that not only know how to walk in the light, how to achieve "success," but also how to live in the dark, how to overcome the obstacles that inevitably arise (interestingly, the word "guru" itself suggests such balance: 'gu (गु)' means darkness and ‘ru (रु)’ means light). I learn the most from those writers that write about how hard it is to write. I am inspired most by yoga teachers that talk about their own health setbacks, that don't have perfect bodies, and that do poses with the class, not to strut their stuff but to make it acceptable for everyone else to get sweaty too. My greatest teachers have been those "winners" that never forget that they are winners precisely because they were once "losers."

Those of us who've failed, who've gotten it wrong a thousand times, we are the ones best able to help folks avoid pitfalls and find successes. We can’t take people farther than we’ve travelled ourselves, as Carl Jung so eloquently put it. Unfortunately, the practice of sharing our dark secrets goes against the unspoken rule of traditional expert power: boast "success" and hide "failure."

Yet it remains to be true that the best that we as experts of any kind can offer is our experience doing the very work we teach and practicing exactly what we preach. The real value of speakers or presenters is not in the knowledge they share in their PowerPoint slide deck (though a good story there can go a long way). The real value is in their ability to answer questions afterwards that will really help the folks in the room apply that knowledge. Remember, the real power of information is that it enables us to take action, to keep walking further and further down the path of understanding.

We are still learning how to live in networks of decentralized power, and we get sidetracked. We easily forget that success is always a journey because one of our cultural (American) beliefs is that there are shortcuts: You don't need to take care of your body, there are doctors who will do that. You don't need to build a meaningful lasting career for yourself, your employer determines your success. You don't need to make difficult decisions, you can rely on family, friends, and self-help authors for guidance (yes, even that industry is not exempt from this clever trick). There are many many people who will still try to sell you quick fixes, to convince you that you can avoid the hard work. And you may get what want from them temporarily. But many times you won't get what you really need for growth and progress because in truth there's nothing quick about that.

Our cultural obsession with having power (including the power to conveniently avoid certain experiences) is why our current systems are unsustainable and collapsing. The good news is that this collapse is opening the door to a new understanding of power. 

We are learning that as we seek the power of knowledge and influence, we must also accept responsibility. Those of us who have information to share and thus the power to help others also have the responsibility to share it in a way that truly does help them. I have learned the hard way that the most valuable information I can offer is not my knowledge and skills but my experience. This is what gives others not just the theoretical framework but the necessary courage to take action themselves. I feel most powerful when I share my messy, tragic, glorious stories in service to others and create the meaningful connections that make every stumble and triumph worthwhile.

It can be a huge leap from talking our values to walking them, from thinking we know the answers to applying them in daily life. We have to do it together. We have to look to the power that comes through building relationships, which also means we have to let go of trying to exert power within them. Only then will the people have power again - not just some of us, but all of us.

In the legendary words of Robert Greenleaf: "Able servants with potential to lead will lead, and, where appropriate, they will follow only servant-leaders. Not much else counts if this does not happen."