Braille Monitor                                              April 2014

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Economics of Leadership: Is Power Rival?

by Justin Salisbury

From the Editor: Justin Salisbury is a doctoral student in Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Originally from Connecticut, he earned his bachelor's degree at East Carolina University and then attended the Louisiana Center for the Blind. He has been active in our movement everywhere he has lived. Here’s what Justin has to say:

Justin SalisburyThe science of economics is the allocation of scarce resources to achieve maximum well-being. All finite resources, including air and sunlight, are considered scarce. One characteristic in economics which helps define the type of good is whether or not the good is rival. If a good is rival, one person’s consumption of it restricts another person’s ability to consume it. For example, if I buy an NFB of New Jersey Whozit necktie, there is one fewer Whozit necktie available for you to buy. If I eat a banana, that banana is gone, and it is most unlikely that anyone else will ever be able to eat it.

At the banquet of the 2013 National Federation of the Blind Convention, President Marc Maurer said, “One misunderstanding about the nature of power is that this commodity is finite, limited in quantity, and shared only by the fortunate few. To get power it is (according to some) necessary to seize it from the hands of others.”

Someone with this misguided philosophy views power as rival. Such a person would say that, if I exercise power, there is less power available for you or your neighbor to exercise. If I exercise power, someone who views power as rival would view me as a threat to her own power.

In the National Federation of the Blind, we work together to enhance each other’s ability to exercise power and thus empower each other. Whenever I read an article or hear a speech delivered by another Federation leader, I am learning how to do better work myself. When Trevor Attenberg writes a brilliant letter, I get out my dictionary and absorb a masterly articulation of the capacity of blind people, or a new approach to conflict resolution. I can then use those techniques to enhance my power, and Trevor’s exercise of power actually adds to mine. It does not subtract from it. This experience provides a counterexample and argues that power is non-rival.

I now serve as legislative coordinator and first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind of Wisconsin (NFBW) and president of our Dane County Chapter. NFBW President John Fritz always supports and encourages my efforts. His support and encouragement empower me further, and any power that I have adds to the power of our affiliate. As our affiliate grows more powerful, the power of each affiliate member in turn increases. When we empower each other, we empower ourselves, too.

By contrast, someone who views power as rival might think he has an incentive to try to undercut and undermine the potential for power in anyone else who might exercise it. Such a person could try to break apart every other power structure in his/her affiliate in order to keep all of the power around him/herself. Such a person would weaken the organization and therefore weaken him/herself.

Though power is not rival, titles frequently are. There is only one president of the Connecticut Association of Blind Students (CTABS). As long as I am CTABS President, nobody else can also be CTABS President.

There is often a view that power intrinsically lies within titles. Some believe that a president is powerful, at least in part, because she is president. She has acquired the rival title of president and is thus powerful. If this were true, then it would also mean that people without titles automatically have less power. If we accept this idea, then we are disempowering ourselves so long as we do not hold the top title in the organization in question. The less power we have, the less power the organization has, the less effective the organization will be, and the less power each member has. If we disempower ourselves, we disempower our presidents, executive directors, and the like.

If we want our movement to be powerful, we need to recognize that we all have power as individuals and that power is non-rival. A transformational leader is an agent of change, so every Federationist is a transformational leader. A leader is powerful to the degree that he empowers others, so we must empower each other, titles or not, to achieve equality, opportunity, and security for the blind.

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