Knowledge and Power: Equipping City Leaders for Today and Tomorrow

Knowledge and Power: Equipping City Leaders for Today and Tomorrow

Two words that often are misunderstood in ordinary conversation are knowledge and power.

Power often gets freighted with disconcerting associations. We may associate power with military power, comforting (if it’s our military defending us) yet frightening (if it is an enemy threatening us). Or we may think of “powerfully built” individuals, who might be impressive and yet intimidating.

Then there’s the other problem with power, the problem that arises if we have it. Because if we have power, there is an expectation that we will use it. If that power is given to us by the public, the expectation is that we will use it for their good. With that power comes considerable responsibility . . . sometimes much more than we actually are comfortable bearing.

The other word, knowledge, often is simplified to the point of irrelevance. I remember being asked, as a neophyte candidate for city council, how large the city’s budget was. I should have had that knowledge, but I didn’t. At the same time, one might ask whether knowledge of that number was indicative of my competence as a prospective public official, or whether other kinds of knowledge might have been more indicative of my potential worth to the citizens.

Professor Dale Zand, in his book The Leadership Triad, suggests that knowledge isn’t one type of thing, but three distinct but related things: expertise (knowledge of a subject matter), process skill (knowledge of how to work through some organizational set of steps) and vision (knowledge of what might be possible and where the organization ought to go). The budget number falls in the first category, expertise. Understanding and being able to use the procedural tools of a policy-making process is process skill. And being able to articulate, clearly, consistently, and perhaps inspiringly, the goals of a particular initiative, or of the city government generally, so that all can see where we are going together, that’s vision.

The connection between knowledge and power should be fairly self-evident. People in positions of public authority and responsibility have what typically is called formal power (Zand calls this “legitimate power”). But without the appropriate kind or kinds of knowledge, it is difficult to exercise our formal power, and impossible to do so wisely.

The person who understands a subject backward and forward has the potential to guide the policy process toward a desired outcome by ensuring the right content is in the policy. The person who has process skill can shepherd a policy innovation through the complex course of public policy making, helping ensure those good ideas actually become ordinances. And the person with vision can mobilize staff, colleagues, interests and citizens to come together and stay together throughout the difficult journey.

Depending on our role in municipal government, our ability to utilize the formal power, our role gives us as public servants will be determined in significant part by the extent to which we have acquired the requisite type of knowledge.

The expanded FLC University is committed to empowering municipal public servants by strengthening all aspects of their knowledge. My own focus tends to be on process skill and vision. My lifelong passion for the art of politics leads me to gravitate toward discussions of how we get things done and where we are trying to go.

I’m only a part of the effort. Working with other experts and with our excellent association partners, the FLC University will strive to be a knowledge resource for today and for tomorrow. Whether the knowledge you need is expertise, or process skill, or vision, we’ll be there to help you acquire it.

To meet your needs, we need to know what they are. I hope you’ll take a moment to comment on this blog and give us some direction. Or write me at and offer your suggestions.

Because cities are powerful. They have more impact, day in and day out, on the lives of those who live, work and play in them than any other level of government. Using that power to enhance the quality of life of all we touch, today and tomorrow, is what municipal public service is all about.