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Potentia: FE’s Secret Sauce

Dr Lou Mycroft is a nomadic educator, writer, and Thinking Environment facilitator.
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Bear with me while I take you back to The Hague/Den Haag in the seventeenth century, where philosopher and lens grinder Baruch Spinoza is also living in interesting times. He was as fascinated by the uses and abuses of power as I am, but he had the advantage of me: writing in Latin, he had two words for power at his disposal.

What is ‘Potestas’?

Potestas is power and politics as usual. It can be organisational or invested in the individual, it is status and hierarchy, it’s power over. The botanic metaphor might be the up-and-downness of the tree (if we weren’t learning incredible things about how trees communicate with one another in the ‘wood wide web‘). We know potestas and sometimes we even need it – think chains of command in the Fire Service, military and A+E. But it’s also a huge blocker, even when it’s practised ethically (far from all of the time). My heart sank only yesterday when the creation of a ‘dynamic steering group’ – to help project manage a community initiative I’m involved in – ground to a halt as its proposed membership got loaded with potestas. I could feel the energy draining out of the conversation. It made me want to crawl under the table and go to sleep (the project already has two Boards).

What is ‘Potentia’?

Potentia is what we need – in the world and in FE. Potentia is a joyful activist energy, it’s collective, it’s power with. Instead of the tree, think of it as bluebells, spreading rhizomatically across the forest floor (and under the fence to the farmer’s field). Spinoza likened potentia to a life force and it’s certainly true that when I encounter other potentia people – which I do often through the collective #JoyFE💛 – my brain comes alive and I find the clarity and energy to navigate the sticky path between good intentions and actionable ideas. I guess we probably all know people around whom we feel that energised, joyful, buzzy calm. People who make things happen.

Well, we can all do it. We all have potentia. We just need to release it in ourselves, instead of chasing – or resenting – potestas all the time. Modern day philosopher Rosi Braidotti says that a ‘good career’ is one-third potentia to two-thirds potestas and that’s great when you’re climbing the ladder. People I know within education who’ve got this bang on are Fircroft College Principal Mel Lenehan and The Black Nursery Manager Liz Pemberton. They have very different energies but joyful potentia activism runs deep in each of them and they are making ethical change happen.

Those of us in less conventionally ‘powerful’ situations can choose a potentia career: influence rather than status, one-third potestas and a vibrant two-thirds potentia. This is an energy you can learn to focus and direct. I’ve had the privilege of working with many such changemakers, thanks to #JoyFE💛 and the Advanced Practitioners Programme #APConnect, where I guess my role was as a sort of ‘potentia mentor’. I’ve buffed up my own potentia around changemakers like Advanced Practitioner Susanna Brandon who stepped back from more of a potestas position to spread joyful potentia energy within the green spaces team at Myerscough College. As a field of bluebells, rather than a single tree, the work of culture change can have more reach than we might imagine.

Potentia energy is awakening ‘golden unicorns’ across FE – Brené Brown’s term for those colleagues who have so much to offer, if anyone would listen. It’s becoming part of the conversation. As a concept, it’s re-invigorated my career and enthused me so much I’m writing a book about it…so let’s talk more about how we can release this joyful, activist energy in one another.

By Dr Lou Mycroft, a nomadic educator, writer, and Thinking Environment facilitator.
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