Ahh – the proverbial master question in community building. If a community is made up of individuals that share interests, values, identity, goals, or geographical location, then one of the bigger questions each of us must ask ourselves is whether to optimize for power or influence

The issue is thorny enough when we just consider which approach to choose, but gets a lot more challenging when adding in our experiences.

You see, if we have spent a majority of our professional experience in roles where power is the predominant mode – and frankly where you have had the most success, I fully understand that you bring that mode into your community building efforts.

Likewise, if your typical operating mode is one of compromise and discussion and consensus, those qualities may signal a predilection for an influence over power mindset.

Choosing between power or influence within your community may be the difference between good and great.

Let’s start with a definition to level set us:

  • Power: Power is the ability to compel or control actions of others, often through the use of authority, force, or sanctions. It can be formal (institutionalized authority) or informal (personal dominance).
  • Influence: Influence involves guiding or shaping the behavior, beliefs, or attitudes of others through persuasion, social cues, or charisma, without direct compulsion.

I many times view community building efforts as having similar characteristics to change management (typically a consulting term used to describe the transition or transformation of an organization’s goals, processes, or technologies. 

The metaphor falls apart with this one simple observation. In a corporation or institution there is an ultimate change management technique – you fire the person who won’t change. In startup communities or entrepreneurial ecosystems – you don’t have that tool available to you.

It is with this fundamental understanding that I advocate for influence over power. Influence fosters a sense of ownership and voluntary commitment among community members, which can lead to more sustainable and long-lasting changes. A community (and the individuals that make up that community) that values democracy and autonomy will respond better to influence, versus one that values efficiency and order and operates with clear power structures. Power also has the potential for abuse.