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John Talbut

The word “power” originates with the Latin word meaning “be able”. Being powerful means being able, that is having the ability to act on the possibilities that are presented in any situation.

“It is, I think, a rather sad reflection on the present state of political science that our language does not distinguish between such key terms as power, strength, force, might, authority, and, finally, violence—all of which refer to distinct phenomena. To use them as synonyms not only indicates a certain deafness to linguistic meanings, which would be serious enough, but has resulted in a kind of blindness with respect to the realities they correspond to.” (Arendt 1969)

So when, for example, Laverack (2005 p27) states “The most common interpretation of power used in the literature is in the form of one person having power-authority and mastery of others” the word “control” can more accurately be used instead of “power” throughout the page.

When the word “power” is used to refer to, for example, control or authority it carries the idea that if we do not have authority or the means to control others then we are not powerful. Convincing people that they lack power is a means of exercising control over them.

Being powerful

This is a relative concept, people are more powerful or less. Being more powerful has three elements:

This is sometimes called personal power or power-from-within (Starhawk 1990 p10) (Laverack 2005 p28). People are only truly powerful if they are powerful in this sense. Assertive behaviour is powerful behaviour.


This has been referred to as power-over (Laverack 2005 p29 referencing Starhawk 1990 p9). It is the exercise of opportunities to make other people do things. The opportunities may arise from objective factors, such as physical strength or role authority. However, the opportunities most commonly stem from the subjects’ fears or internalised beliefs, for example that they must submit or that there is no alternative. In other words, the opportunities arise from the subjects’ powerlessness.

People who try to control others do so compulsively, they are not aware of alternative ways of behaving or unable to behave differently. In other words, they are not powerful. In the assertiveness model, controlling behaviour is classified as aggressive.


Being powerful equates to being free. Freedom is a state of mind, a person can be free in a prison cell and imprisoned when out in the world. Life is always full of constraints, they could be the walls of a prison cell, the actions of other people or the limited resources of the planet. Freedom and power are about knowing that we have options within these constraints and being able to choose for ourselves the options to act on.


This has been referred to as power-with (Laverack 2005 p30, Starhawk 1990 p14). When people are acting powerfully they will often co-operate with others. On the other hand being powerful also means choosing when this may be appropriate and being able to act without opportunities for co-operation.


Becoming more powerful involves being more self-aware and self-directed. Being more self-aware makes us better aware of what our options are and choosing between them is being self-directed.

Being self-directed involves having a tendency to take the lead, e.g. by making suggestions, asking for things or expressing an opinion. Others will follow that lead, more often, perhaps, than we would expect.

So as we become more self-aware and self-directed, we become leaders, this is inevitable.

Arendt H (1969) "Reflections on Violence" The New York Review of Books. Vol 12., No. 4

Laverack G (2005) Public health: power, empowerment and practice Basingstoke: Palgrave

Starhawk (1990) Truth or dare: encounters with power, authority, and mystery San Francisco: Harper

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Updated 11th August 2020

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