Last night I heard a fifteen year old girl ask the rhetorical question, “Why are some suited to be a leader and others aren’t?” She had been comparing a teacher and a vice principal, both from her school. Apparently, the teacher had treated her badly and the vice principal had treated her well. Her disparaging remark neatly summarized a common understanding of power — people who treat others well deserve to be leaders. Implicit, of course, was the assumption that those who don’t treat others well don’t deserve to be leaders.
The question vexed me. On the one hand, she was correct to note the difference between authority and power as styles of leadership. The vice principal had helped her, which confirmed the legitimacy or the authority of his position. In contrast, the teacher had coerced her to do something she didn’t want to do. Coercion falls pretty unambiguously into the deployment of power category. On the other hand, these were not isolated events. They took place within a fraught social network in which the reason she had sought out her teacher and the vice principal came into play. At this level, both the teacher’s and the vice principal’s actions make sense. Continue reading