Power - Leadership
The term "power" has several definitions. One that relates to
people is: The ability or official capacity to make decisions and
exercise control over others. People who have power to make
decisions are knowledgeable about what will and will not work.
In this publication, these people will be referred to as decision
makers. Community decision makers earn and maintain their
position by knowing and communicating what needs to be done
and who should do it. These people may be visible, but more
often than not they work quietly behind the scenes. The decision
makers are composed of individuals having political, social, and
economic knowledge of the community.
Leadership is successful when there is a cooperative relationship
between decision makers and followers for identifying and
solving community problems and expanding available local
resources. Viewing leadership as a cooperative relationship
allows a community to use the energy that can be created
between leaders and followers.2
A community is generally defined as a geographic space
inhabited by people who have a sense of unity and common
interest. Every person belongs to a series of communities that
include organized or unorganized groups. Collectively, these
groups determine the long-run fate of the community. This is
very important to individuals as they take their places as players
People may identify with many subcommunities. They may
belong to a subcommunity interested primarily in schools,
economic development, city, county, civic, or other interest
groups. Within these groups are people who have the power to
make decisions for specific projects. There are various interests
within each of the groups who want to see projects completed
for their community.
Different people are involved in each stage of the develop-ment
process. The community is stratified among influence
leaders (decision makers), leadership action-oriented people
(leaders), followers (interested citizens) and nonparticipants
(citizens who don't care).3 Decision makers generally make
final policy decisions concerning development and usually have
the communityĖs best interest in mind. Leaders occupy the next
level and make decisions concerning specific projects. The next
layer is composed of interested citizens who can be in charge of
special projects. These people tend to be officers and active
members in local civic or social groups. The final authority for
economic development lies with the public, who vote on the
specific tax issues for water, sewer, streets, education and other
projects before the actual work is done. It is the cooperative
relationship among all levels that makes community develop-ment
a successful activity.
Decision makers provide overall direction for accomplishing
the goals and objectives of the community. The ability of
decision makers to use the cooperative energy of the community
to guide development will depend on how effective they are in
relating to different subcommunities. They have a broader view
of the community and are able to influence leaders to develop
and complete individual projects.
Leaders in a community take on different responsibilities,
working with subcommunities or within an organization.
Leaders have the ability to work with people and to influence a
group to complete a project that was approved by decision
makers. Leaders are more willing to learn about the details of a
project than the average citizen. New leaders with special
interests may come forward to get their projects completed. Old
leaders may have vested interests in the status quo and may
actually feel threatened by new leaders trying to create new
projects or programs for the community.
Planning - Strategic Economic Planning
In order for new ideas to be successfully presented, they need
to be incorporated into established programs through a planning
process. A strategic planning process should be completed by
leaders and approved by decision makers with input from the
public. The strategic plan should take into account resources of
the community and the possibility for completion. When a
strategic plan is completed, all those involved in the planning
process understand it and have a vested interest in it. Given this
knowledge, leaders are more likely to implement various
projects, which the community will undertake based on the need
and resources available.
It is wise for leaders to consider some projects with a short-term
duration of one or two years at the most. This gives the
community a sense that something is being done. Longer term
projects, such as an industrial park development, health care
facilities, or a new water system, may require several years to
THE POWER PRINCIPLE
The struggle for power compels some individuals to act in
such a way as to be influential in the community. Information is
a key component used to make decisions that are in the best
interests of the community. The people who continue to learn
about new opportunities and what is happening in their community
will continue to be decision makers using the information
to create action in the community. The relationship between
decision makers, leaders, and followers can assume different
types of action for survival, which can be described by using
- when two or more decision makers or leaders work together
with the public to make better use of limited resources or
- when local leaders compete for new leadership positions
such as in local elections or when a new group of leaders
emerges to implement a new project that is in competition with
the status quo but eventually benefits the community;
- when a decision maker, leader or group of leaders gains
personal recognition from projects started.
Symbiotic efforts can make use of a few resources that will
produce greater results than if each effort or project was
developed independently. The most efficient way is to have
leaders and local government officials working together to
make the best use of limited resources. Rural communities
usually do not have excess resources to afford the luxury of
every groupĖs acting alone.
Competitive leadership projects can be beneficial for a
community. Decision makers who are in competition with
each other can provide positive opportunities for the commu-
nity if the competition is friendly within the community.
However, if the competition is very strong, one group could
prevail and defeat the other, leaving the community worse off
when the dust settles.
THREE STAGES OF POWER DEVELOPMENT FOR
Younger or new people often seek power in a community
because of the inactivity of existing leaders. When new members
of a community have ideas and make recommendations about
helping their community and nothing gets done, their only resort
is try to change the system themselves.
These new leaders will have to begin by developing decision
making powers. Detailed information can be assembled about a
specific project, followed by an educational program informing
the public about economic costs and benefits. New leaders have
to gain the trust of the public about the merits of the project
before anyone will support it.
New leaders learn how to interpret various signals received
from the community. They are not told how to act, but are given
some principles that will help them decide among courses of
action for themselves. The type of action taken within the
community will affect the development of the community. There
are three basic stages of power development:
- learning about one or two issues that are important to the
individual and community.
Initially an individual has a certain degree of expertise in a
project or area. This expertise is necessary to gain a foothold in
order to act at all. As individuals gain community trust and
support, they begin to move up the power scale in the community.
- learning more about policy issues that will enhance the power
to act or guide decisions.
This will allow an individual to begin to assume a role in
several projects. Completion of major projects that are successful
will promote a trust when a new project is proposed by him/her.
Stabilization - consolidation
- maintain power by continuing to learn more about the issues
and work toward policies
Expanding and preserving the community or project that is
being pursued. Generally, the decision makers who do not change
easily have a large economic and social investment in the
community. There are also decision makers who have little or no
economic interests but have developed a large social investment
in the community.
New leaders will have to learn how to work with special
groups, such as chambers of commerce, economic development
committees, developers and local governments on special
projects. Support of these front groups will come with the
approval of the established power.
Developing a respected power base by new leaders takes time.
Sometimes new leaders may use the local political route to
develop. New plant owners who have just moved into the
community will have to establish themselves before they are
accepted. Communication is the most important aspect once a
project is deemed economically beneficial to the community.
POWER AND COMMUNICATION
Power is maintained with discussions throughout the community
and with accurate information flows from the leaders to the
public and back again. Decision makers are responsible for
sending and receiving accurate information concerning develop-ment
in the community. If a complicated command or approval
moves through several stages from the decision maker to the
public, it may be altered enroute to suit the interest of individuals
at intermediate levels. A signal may become very weak or
changed deliberately or inadvertently as it passes from one person
to another. Public forums and commission meetings are the most
common formal channels of communication. Local coffee shops
and social events provide informal channels of communication.
Decisions are made based on all the information that is available
at the time.
Inaccurate information or partial information about an issue
will eventually become known to the public, and they will react
accordingly. Interpretation and summary of community informa-tion
should be done very carefully with honesty and integrity.
Feedback in communication to leaders and decision makers is
necessary to know how and what action is being taken. Larger
communities require more effort for feedback.
Internal dynamics of power and communication set up the
decision making framework. The public may not want all of the
details, but they need to know how it will affect them and who
will benefit the most from any specific project. This not only
includes economic benefits but social and political enhancements
for the leaders as well.
Noise in communication becomes very critical if a project is
controversial for a certain group within the community. Noise has
no information or only misleading information. This could result
in unauthorized messages being received by appropriate leaders
and could mislead the leaders in their decision making. These
noise messages could be accidental or, if a specific group is
opposed to a project, interference can be deliberate. Among the
critical factors in reducing noise in communication is repetitious
signals that add little or nothing to the message. However, by
using several different sources of information, the noise or
interference in the system can be bypassed. A message does not
convey knowledge if the recipient can predict in advance what
the message will be, but it can be used as reinforcement of earlier
A type of conversation that is socially accepted but does not pass
any relevant information to others is called "phatic communication."
Examples of phatic communication include small talk, such
as local sports and weather, topics which take no position nor do
they reveal the thoughts and prejudices of any individual. However,
phatic communication used to keep people ignorant about
specific projects is not consistent with effective communication.
Positional behavior in the power structure is a kind of behavior
addressed primarily toward influencing positions in a group.
Sometimes leaders pursue a leadership position while others are
elected to be there by a group or community. As leadership
positions get higher, there are fewer people qualified to fill them.
However, there is never room at the top for all who would like to
be there. Community decision makers earn and maintain their
position by knowing and communicating what needs to be done
and who should do it.
Maintaining power through persuasion can take place even
though a leader may not have full support of the community.
He/she endeavors to convince individuals that a specific project
may or may not be in the best interest of the community.
Conveying this information to the public or a group has to be
accurate and sufficient enough for a clear understanding of what
is to take place.
Political power is granted by the public on a majority basis,
usually through elections. Locally elected officials have some
power in the community but usually are fronting for the decision
makers. State and nationally elected officials have limited power
in a local community because they represent a much broader
community. Political power often provides access to outside
resources needed to complete local projects. Limited project
funds are allocated by elected officials on the basis of influencing
voters in order to maintain their political position. This is done
through state and federal agencies that manage project funds.
Power can result from the office held, such as rank in military
services, or political parties, such as president, senator, governor,
mayor. Power exercised by these office holders is held as long as
they are in office. If they move out of the office, they no longer
have the same kind of power. In smaller communities local
elected officials are sometimes part of the power structure. Often
these people are restricted by limited resources in what they can
or cannot do within the community development program.
Changing stages of power
Some elected officials earn power overtime. After leaving
office, they are still looked on as leaders. Former President
Jimmy Carter, Former Secretary of State Henry Kissenger, and
Former Kansas Governor Alf Landon are all examples of
elected officials whose influence continued after they left office.
Social power is equally important in developing a community
base. Leaders hold offices in one or more of the social organizations
in the community. Members of the social group elect and
support the officers, resulting in a social base for the leaders.
One of the shortcomings for a social group is that they often
have limited membership within the town and rarely include
others from neighboring towns. This social group has very little
community power but often starts projects it wants to support,
projects which are limited in scope and interest but can contrib-ute
to the overall improvement of the community. These
projects usually pose no threat to the existing decision makers.
Issues that have no political boundaries require a different
power base. Specialized social structures can be developed for a
specific project that has communality with surrounding coun-ties.
Tourism, health care and cultural activities are examples
that could involve many different geographic entities and
groups. Decision makers from different communities can get
together to discuss common projects and then persuade leaders
of each group to work together. The main idea is to develop
natural and social strengths of a county or area and to stimulate
people outside the area to pay to use them.
The wealthiest individuals in a community are often thought
to comprise the power structure. Owning a large business,
however, does not guarantee a decision maker role. A person
must be an active community participant in economic develop-ment
before he or she can gain the support of the community.
Enlightened business people will see advantages of a project to
the community even though it does not benefit them and their
IDENTIFYING POWER STRUCTURE
The power structure in a community can be formally identified
with a series of interviews, starting with a random sample
of the population. The size of the sample will depend on the size
of the population. Each interviewee is asked who he/she feels is
knowledgeable about a number of different topics, topics which
reflect the issues that are of most concern in the community,
such as industrial park, economic development, downtown
development, housing, health care, utilities, water and sewer
infrastructure, beautification, education, and property taxes.
Topics can be changed and should reflect the issues that are of
concern in a specific community. The names of the people
mentioned for each topic should be kept separate.
Second, the people listed for each topic should be visited and
asked with whom they would consult for the same topics listed
in the earlier sample. The names for each topic should be
summarized by ranking them in order of number of times they
were mentioned. Topics are kept separate, as some decision
makers are specialists while others are generalists and under-
stand what is happening throughout the community. This
interview process is repeated until a consolidated list of names
emerges. Once the final list is identified, there will probably be
fewer than fifteen people who have knowledge about what is
happening and understand how each project will impact the
Decision makers will not be a formal group with any type of
meeting arrangements, but they are very much aware of each
other and communicate when necessary. Projects can be
approved by visiting one or two of the decision makers.
Working with them at the beginning stage can save a lot of time.
SURVIVAL AND GROWTH OF POWER
An organized decision making system in a community
doesn't die because a leader dies, moves out or is no longer
interested. The community decision making group continues as
new members become part of this group. Capacity for undergoing
a change requires leaders who can become informed about
many programs. Systematic growth should be the overriding
goal of most communities. It is necessary to go forward in order
not to fall backward.
Understanding the power system in a community can result in
more completed projects with less controversy. This depends on
the amount of strategic planning that has been done and the
involvement of the decision makers. Trying to bypass this
structure is difficult and time consuming. Working with the
structure will provide more success in any community develop-ment
1 Community Enterprise Development, Department of Agricultural
Economics, Cooperative Extension Service, Kansas State University,
Manhattan, Kansas, August 7, 1996.
2 Mark McCaslin, Leadership is a Relationship, Next Age Leader,
News from the North Central National Extension Leadership Development
Program, Illinois Cooperative Extension Service, 17722 Oak
Park Avenue, Tinley Park, Illinois 60477, September 1995.
3 J. Carroll Bottum, "The Philosophy and Process of Community
Development" The Development of Rural America, Edited by George
Brinkman, The University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 1971,
Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service
Leadership for Healthy Communities: Working with Power Constituents in Communities, Kansas State University, August 1996.
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