“Absolutely not. I am not about power,” I vehemently disagreed with my executive coach.
Sitting at a busy Starbucks, I could not understand why we were even talking about power. This wise coach picked up her blonde brew and kindly said,
“Jenn, I need you to listen. Everything has a power. Every person holds power. And if you don’t know you have it, you will hurt people when you wield it.”
I never want to hurt people. Yet, I could cause the very outcome I was trying to avoid by rejecting power. This conversation launched my journey of learning how power impacts relationships, leadership, and teams.
I still feel really uncomfortable with the idea of holding power. I much prefer the softer terms of influence or servant-leadership or responsibility or impact. And I think many people feel this way. More on myths in a moment…
Over time, my coach’s words have proved true: When I don’t recognize the power I hold in a given situation, the outcomes are rarely what I intend.
So I keep learning how to rightly recognize the power I hold (I can’t even type “my power” and feel ok with it!) as a speaker, a leader, a friend, a mother, a wife, a team member — all the relationships I exist in. And it’s part of my work to support leaders in the same skill, choosing to use power for the benefit of everyone.
There are so many types of power, including so many bad examples, it’s no wonder you want to skirt around it and dissociate yourself from the abuse of power.
And yet, to paraphrase Bernard Mayer, the only thing you can’t do with power is chose to not have any.
From my experience and study, I’ve identified two significant myths about power.
MYTH: Power is that it is zero-sum game. That power is a finite fixed quantity, and in order to have power, I have to take someone else’s. (And the source of a lot of my discomfort with the idea of holding power). But it’s not pie! There’s more to go around.
REALITY: Power is dynamic and fluid. You can increase your power by giving someone else power. You can use power to support yourself, others, and the group.
TO TRY: Consider what power you have in a situation. Positional, relational, knowledge, experience, information, persistence (and there are more…) How are you using your power?
MYTH: Power and intimidation or control are the same. I think this myth comes from the abuse of power in command and control systems where there is a clear hierarchical structure. This impression has brewed into cultural leadership models and turned many bitter to the idea of power.
REALITY: Intimidation and control come from those who are weak and are grasping for a way to get power. And these tactics only work for a limited amount of time. Then resentment and shame eventually cause disengagement or departure.
TO TRY: When you sense yourself reaching for intimidation or control, ask yourself, “What power do I think I lack? What am I trying to get?”
As I’ve observed myself and others, what I’ve come to realize ”I’m not about power” usually means “I’m not about control or force or self-centered leadership.”
When you recognize your power, you also have the choice to use your power to lift up and support, to benefit yourself and others, and to create connection and possibilities.
So I’m really curious…How do you feel about power? How do you define power? How do you use power? How have you seen power used well? Or abused? Reply to this post and let me know.