Suck or blow? Power surges & power vacuums

Creative Commons licensed on Flickr by: Mark

Waaaaay back when, when I used to do leadership training with youth, we’d sometimes play a game called suck & blow.  It involved passing a playing card around a seated, circle of people, without using your hands, only by way of mouth to mouth. You could only pass the card by sucking in (holding the card to your mouth) until you could pass it to the person next to you, who would then suck air in while you simultaneously blew out.

Note to dear readers: lest you be gasping in horror, know that this game was only played with people who knew each other well & were comfortable with this level of touching.

I thought of the game recently because of a project I’m working on.

I’m adapting the UN Locally Elected Leadership Series for a youth audience.  It’s fascinating work.  More than 500,000 people have been trained in the series & it’s been translated into more than 25 languages.

It includes training in a number of competencies for local authorities, including in facilitation, leadership, negotiation & power.

Here’s what made me think of that old game.

Principal authors David Tees & Fred Fisher say: “It may be more effective to fill power vacuums & manage them, than to initiative new power surges.  There’s a well known problem-solving approach that says it is more effective to remove the constraints that are keeping the problem from being solved than to reinforce those forces driving for a solution.  It may also be true of the use of power.”

It was hilarious playing the suck & blow game because it was tricky stuff to match the levels of sucking in air with blowing out air, in order to pass the card along.  More often than not the card would wind up anywhere but the place it was being directed.

So when do you suck?  a.k.a. when do you fill a power vacuum?


When do you blow? a.k.a. when do you initiate a new power surge?

Put in a training context, there are times when you need to visibly surge & demonstrate your power as a trainer.  Examples include when a group member is directly challenging you or being rude, when things have gone awry & off track, when the group is really, truly lost & seeking your input or when conflict is palpable.

Visibly demonstrating your power as a trainer includes standing tall & big (watch powerful men, they have this down pat!), standing slightly behind a ‘troublemaker’ participant & speaking a little more loudly.


There are times when you need to power down as a trainer & diminish or share your power.  Examples include when you are working with people that have experienced oppression, when the group is ticking along great & needs mere nudges to move along, or when you’re seeking collaboration & sincere input from the group & you want to equalize things.

Visibly powering down techniques include NOT sitting at the front of the room but rather off to the side, NOT establishing long term eye contact with group members while they are speaking (making eye contact briefly & looking away ensures they’ll look at OTHER group members, thereby sharing power), & speaking slightly more quietly.

In the power section of the UN Locally Elected Leadership SeriesJames MacGregor Burns is quoted as saying: “We must see power – and leadership – not as things but as relationships and to analyze power in the context of human motives & physical constraints.  It exists whether or not it is quested for.  It is the glory and the burden of most of humanity.”

Ahhhh power.  Burden or glory? Do you suck or blow?  Surge or vacuum?



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