Personal Empowerment & Leadership Skills

Excerpt from the ‘Social Dimension’ of Gaia Education’s online course in ‘Design for Sustainability

Daniel Christian Wahl
6 min readSep 25, 2017

“Empowerment is the process of increasing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes.”

— World Bank

Power might be defined as our ability to create, sustain, change and influence people, groups, systems, and life. It is our ability to consciously contribute to the process of evolution. To be able to take a positive stance towards self-empowerment, we need to distinguish between two types of power:

  • Repressive power suppresses the life force in individuals, society and nature.
  • Creative power implies a gift of our individual wisdom and beauty to enhance the process of life.

The global system generates a feeling of hopelessness and despair in many. Many of us have “given up,” sometimes quite subtly, on ourselves and on our survival as a race on this planet. Mass media are feeding us misinformation and a cheap imitation of real life, and we are letting it happen. Yet, if we look at the state of affairs, it seems that the time is more than ripe to wake up and reclaim our personal power and our hope.

“Hope is a verb, with its sleeves rolled up!” ­

-- David W. Orr

Receptivity combined with alertness to perceive reality will give us invaluable information on what we need to do. Creative power awakens when we allow our natural talents to express themselves through us as best we can. Community can play a key role in this process. Feedback from those around us is vital. Where do others perceive our strengths and weaknesses to lie? We feel strongly motivated when we trust that the gift we bring is being seen and appreciated and is generating well-being for all that we love.

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love with out power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

- Martin Luther King Jr.

Here is a short video (90sec) of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking about the relationship between love and power.

Repressive Power versus Creative Power

Repressive power has its roots in a worldview based on fear and distrust. We are trapped in the story of separation and it leads us to repeat a set of false assumptions. These [mistaken] assumptions are so prevalent in global culture that they make opting for repressive power seem sensible:

  • There is not enough for everybody on this planet;
  • The world is made up of separate entities (the story of separation of self & world, and humanity & nature);
  • Misinterpreting Darwin’s theory of evolution as a struggle for survival in which only the fittest (rather than the most fitting) will win;
  • We excuse competitive behaviour as ‘human nature’ whereas modern science shows that our species evolved through cooperation;
  • Being sensible means doing things we do not wish to do; and
  • Defences are needed for us to survive in this hostile environment; others will take advantage of any weakness we show.

However, protecting ourselves against unwanted feedback from our environment on a large scale is making us miss out on vital information. We need to open up and reconnect to the fundamental bio-physical truth of our interbeing. Only then can we become healthy participants in a healthy environment and healthy communities.

Creative power implies a gift of our individual wisdom and beauty to enhance the process of life. Creative power is not a property we own, but rather processes that we open up to. We are integral parts and participants of the whole process of life. This process of life — as a whole — evolving and diversifying is the ultimate creative process on Earth and intimately linked with the evolution of the universe.

The source of all our creative agency comes from our interbeing and identity with the creative process of life and universe evolving.

Assumptions that benefit the growth of creative power are:

  • Our planet is, in essence, a place of abundance and plenty if wisely managed;
  • Life is continuously offering us the best opportunities for growth;
  • Viable solutions are those that satisfy the needs of all those involved, leading to win-win situations; Win-win solutions are always possible;
  • Viable solutions are necessarily based upon respect for the needs of all beings that live on our planet; and
  • Humans have the same basic needs all around the world (food, shelter, meaningful work, love, and respect) [… together we can co-create collaborative abundance to help everyone meet those needs.]

The Dynamic of Power

“To experience empowerment we must act on a sense of self worth, value and give voice to our own needs, and give equal validity to our own needs as to others. As we develop a sense of empowerment, we begin to discover that a conflict of needs actually can present us with a creative challenge to imagine solutions that can empower all parties involved.”- Judy Lightstone

Throughout our lives, human beings go through different situations where power is present in different ways (parent-child, child-teacher, boss-employee, man-woman, individual-society, etc.). Sometimes we feel powerless and dependent on people more powerful than us (we see ourselves as victims). Sometimes we feel powerful and we might even abuse other people, although we may be unaware of that (we turn into aggressors). Finally we might witness abuses suffered by others and offer them our help (we take the role of rescuers).

The existence of these three roles in a group — victim, aggressor, rescuer — gives way to a typical structure that in Transactional Analysis is called the Drama Triangle (or Power Triangle). This structure seems to be present in many groups and is also a constant in most people’s lives. It is not rare for a person to have played all three of these roles in different situations. However, for most people it is easy to remember those occasions where they felt like powerless victims, and very difficult to think of any situation where they could have hurt somebody.

The Drama Triangle (Source)

Our tendency is to think that we don’t have any power — power always seems to be in other people hands, and therefore we think we cannot abuse anybody, we can just be the innocent victims. Leaving behind our ‘victimism’ is the first, foremost, and inescapable step in the process of personal empowerment. We have to change our attitude, learn to read our past in a different way, and develop a creative attitude towards life.

With a change in attitude, the “power triangle” becomes the “discovering triangle.” The aggressor, by becoming aware of her rank and learning to use it with transparency, can turn into a real leader: she uses her power for the collective well-being, leaves behind attacks, threats and resentments, gives clearly her reasons for doing things, and asks for and respects others’ points of view. The victim who becomes aware of her situation and begins to use her power with transparency (there is a big latent power in all victims) also transforms herself into a leader. She too uses her power for the general well-being, transforming her opposition and criticism into something useful and constructive, leaves behind her vengefulness and angry attacks, learns from every situation, even the most difficult ones, and celebrates her capacity to find her own life path. Finally, the rescuer who fills herself up with humility and compassion and offers her help with authenticity and transparency becomes a true facilitator, a coach, an elder: she observes the global situation and considers how much help is appropriate, intervenes only when needed, gives space to all voices in conflict, and her help even becomes invisible.

Here is a link to a TED talk (16min) by Adam Kahane on his excellent short book Power and Love — A Theory and Practice of Social Change (2009). It offers an excellent exploration of many global examples of the dynamics of power playing out in social change.

[… continues]

[Note: The 2017–2018 online course in ‘Design for Sustainability’ starts on October 23rd, 2017 and is enrolling now. The course starts with the Social Design dimension, which this excerpt is taken from. The material for this dimension was mainly written by José Luis Escorihuela (Ulises) who also leads the online team for the Spanish version of the course. This excerpt has been co-authored by Ulises Escorihuela and Daniel Wahl. Other sections are by Alyson Ewald from Dancing Rabbit ecovillage who is a mentor on the Social Design dimension.]

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Daniel Christian Wahl

Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures