The Powerful Stranger

by | Aug 9, 2022

“We have met the enemy and he is us”
(Pogo, the comic strip character, as cited in Westley et al, 2007; p. 94)

20/20 hindsight: laying blame
As I look back on my work, confronting systemic barriers for neurodivergent individuals has always included interacting with others with whom I don’t agree or am angry because of how things are, or with others who simply intimidate me. I have often resigned myself to the idea that others’ different mindsets, value systems and priorities, or what I perceived as turf protection in some cases, would hinder any form of joint progress. So, I would sometimes simply try to avoid or minimize contact with certain individuals or entities, trying to work around them if I could. I felt that with all the energy needed every day to push forward, unpleasant encounters would sap my energy and discourage me from continuing the work at hand. Other times, I would prepare myself for a “fight” and try to argue my case with others to get them to change and to see things my way. In those cases, I would feel a bit like David, a noble warrior, in battle with Goliath. Neither of these strategies yielded much success. All in all, resistance from others just exhausted me.  

Today, I can confidently say that my behaviour limited the potential for success.

The powerful stranger
In their book Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed, Frances Westley and colleagues (2007) introduce the notion of the ‘powerful stranger’ in the context of social innovation. They borrow the term from the poem entitled Lost (by David Wagoner). The poet essentially asks us (as readers) to be present in our relationship to ourselves and to others. Here is the poem:

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you. 

In the context of addressing societal problems, Westley and colleagues talk of the powerful stranger as an individual or entity that make us feel powerless in our struggle to improve things. In their studies of individuals working toward systemic change over the course of history, they have found that meeting resistance is commonplace, as is this sense of powerlessness. This somehow brings me comfort – at least we are not alone. 

However, they insist that this powerful stranger is also within us and that the powerful stranger in us may be equally resistant to change. We may choose to look outward to attribute blame when in fact some of the barriers are ones that we ourselves create and enact; we are part of the system we are trying to change (Westley et. al, 2007). They refer to historical studies capturing the common qualities among social innovators who had succeeded in ‘moving the needle’. These individuals shared an ability to “marry reflection and action” (p. 61).  And so, the authors argue that we need to be in contemplative relationship with our internal powerful stranger:

“Power is still experienced by most of us as haves and have nots. Whether you have the power or you don’t, chances are that you need to confront your own fanatic heart – your suspicions of and anger with the other. To release new energy, your own or that of others, you need to empathize with the other…and reclaim their sentiments as your own. You need to find the roots of empathy.” (Westley et al, 2007; p. 125) 

I spent too much time and energy stuck on frustrations with others, rather than understanding and questioning my own biases and the foundations upon which these were built.  At the end of the day, I may have been one of the biggest barriers to the progress I worked so hard to achieve.

Engaging powerful strangers
I have since learned to come face-to-face my own powerful stranger and to lean into encounters with those whom I had previously perceived to be the ‘other’ to confront or avoid.   I now mine these encounters as opportunities to understand the inner workings of the status quo and to understand the points of views of these external powerful strangers.

I have to admit that this is still not something that comes naturally. It continues to be difficult work.  But through it, I have come to realize that others who seem to have more power than I do in this work, and who seem to me to be so resistant to change, often still share in the desire to see things improve.   

Leadership that enables change
This ‘coming to terms’ with powerful strangers has also since led me to another aha moment. I came across the work of Mary Uhl-bien and colleagues (2009) that allowed me to understand that we really need the ‘others’ who we see as powerful strangers to work with us, if we want to make a difference.  The authors argue that entrepreneurial-type leadership that brings innovative ideas and that often comes from advocates (where I fit), is important when it comes to significant change in complex and bureaucratic systems. But it is not enough.

They suggest that this kind of leadership must be complemented by what they term ‘administrative leadership among people from within existing systems who deeply understand the way things work, how information flows, how decision-making occurs, and  how change can actually become embedded in the routines of such complex systems.  These are often the very people we consider to be powerful strangers.  

The bottom line
My takeaway is this: for those of us working with and for neurodivergent individuals, we must constructively engage those powerful strangers, both outside of us and within us, if we wish to contribute to the deep and meaningful change in services, structures, laws, regulations, and attitudes that we all need to see.  


Uhl-Bien, M. & Marion, R. 2009. Complexity leadership in bureaucratic forms of organizing: A meso model.  The Leadership Quarterly. 20: 631-650.

Westley, F., Zimmerman, B. & Patton, M. Q. 2007. Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed. Vintage Canada.


Malvina Klag is a strategist working in the area of systemic change, social innovation and strategic planning in complex contexts. She is also a Research Affiliate at the J.W. Burns Leadership Institute, I.H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba.