When hierarchy around him changed, my father counterbalanced the idea that if one person was elevated the other had been downgraded.
This remark was based on a view on power that was dominated by the idea of hierarchy as a pyramid. That is one in which a position gives power over all those reporting towards one’s position. It was and often still is how hierarchy is understood.
It’s a perception that can lead to seeing dependencies on others, limiting oneself to the perceived possibilities to act, and searching for ways to limit one’s own responsibilities.
What it also can lead to, is to search for ways to protect one’s ability to act from the influence others may have.
From such a perspective, power becomes a status symbol as well as a way to experience oneself in the given environment. This helps to see how intrusion from others in one’s sphere of action can become a threat to oneself. A threat, which is then met with the desire to control the environment. The more the individual feels threatened the more rigid the exchange will become. The more rigid the measures seeking to control the situation become.
Something my father would frequently do and noticed to be confusing for his colleagues was to step out of the norms of hierarchy. If he needed information he would search for it where he assumed that it would be. It didn’t matter to him where that person was located in the hierarchy. He wanted to be able to learn from the person and their experience. Asking his direct reports would have transformed the information and not allowed him to ask the questions he wanted to ask.
These were situations in which his approach to power was based on exercising it with the other. He wanted to do the right thing and give space to others to use their power to teach him something or change his perspective whenever they could.
Power “over” and power “with” connect us both with our vulnerability.
The difference is how we can approach it.
Is the situation one in which we sense that we need to protect ourselves? Or is it a situation in which we can open up and allow for a potential transformation?
None of both are better per se.
It is how it is received and how It impacts others that will determine if the chosen behavior is successful or not.