What is power? And why do we want it?
The lack of clarity over these two simple questions is the source of many imposter syndromes, mid-life crises, and dreams deferred. We tend to think of power in terms of wealth, social status, and titles. The unquestionable desirability of external sources of power has been marketed to most of us from a young age. And yet, as a leadership consultant, I regularly come across people with all of these credentials who still do not feel powerful. Some live in fear of their power being taken away or of others discovering that they are not worthy of it.
So, what does it mean to be truly powerful? Picture Nelson Mandela, dressed as a janitor, walking into a room where you are seated. One can imagine that you would feel his presence immediately regardless of his attire. Mandela’s authority did not require wealth, social status, or titles. From his prison cell in Robben Island, he commanded the allegiance and respect of millions. Even prison guards who were meant to torture Mandela ended up befriending him. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that as president, he was able to exercise power on a far greater scale. The external power of Mandela’s position provided a platform that afforded him greater opportunity to unite South Africa, and win the trust of many who had previously railed against him.
It is easy for those starting out their career to observe the culture of external power – of wealth, social status, and titles – and believe that this is what they must conform to in order to become powerful. For those from privileged backgrounds, this belief encourages a sense of conditional self-worth. For those from underprivileged backgrounds, it manifests as a choice between power and remaining true to one’s authentic self.
And, for those subject to negative bias based on immutable characteristics such as ethnicity, this belief can trigger despair. When conformity is not an option, power can feel out of reach. Ironically, in each case, the desire for power can end up compromising one’s ability to be truly powerful. I refer to this phenomenon, which I encounter frequently in organisations, as the “progression paradox”. If left unchecked, it leads our future Nelson Mandela’s to hide the very aspects of themselves that make their contributions unique, or to opt out of power entirely.
So, how can aspiring leaders overcome this paradox and create their own pathways to power? The key lies in shifting one’s paradigm for engaging with power from one of ego to one of purpose – i.e., from a fear-based desire for self-survival to a passion-based desire for systemic flourishing. A ruthless focus on how you can authentically add value to the system is required. There are three steps for cultivating this, and obtaining external power that is in sync with both you and your surroundings:
Step 1: Discover your value.
Those lacking external power tend to overlook their key assets or to wait for others to validate them. However, a more entrepreneurial approach is needed to explore and test how you are best positioned to add value. A standard inventory of your strengths, passions, and beliefs can be helpful, along with a fresh look at the potential utility of resources and networks that are readily available. Those with external power may be tempted to assume that they understand their value. However, it’s essential that they resist complacency and continue to challenge these assumptions. This calls for a willingness to get out of their comfort zone to discover their true calling.
Step 2: Translate your value
Discovering your value is not enough. To become truly powerful this value must be valued. This involves tuning into your key stakeholders – their needs, desires, norms, and language. As your understanding of them improves, it becomes easier to translate the value you offer into terms that align with their vision, and to do so in a language they can hear. Occasionally, you must be prepared to raise your voice. For those lacking external power, this process requires the resilience to face numerous rejections without losing faith. For those with external power, this requires the courage to step back from areas where they are not best-positioned to add value, such that they become more credible in areas where they are.
Step 3: Evolve your value.
To reach your potential for power, you must commit to improving the quality and scope of the value you offer and stay in tune with the ever-changing needs of your market. Both processes involve a willingness to invest in your growth. This requires sacrifice from those lacking external power, who may struggle to find the time and resources. Likewise, this requires focus from those with external power who may find they are overwhelmed with too many options. Both processes also involve the skill of receiving and filtering feedback. Valuable insight, intelligence, and information are often bundled with personal agendas, biases, and limitations. Whilst those with external power may struggle to receive the critical feedback they need to grow, those lacking external power are likely to receive a distorted overdose. In both cases, a deeper level of listening is required.
In my early days as an entrepreneur, I remember experiencing moments of panic when I realised that many of my potential clients were unlikely to associate me with power based on initial appearances. I was not male, white, or middle-aged. I had just moved to the UK, and did not have an established brand or network. Moreover my offering – empowering leaders as ethical change agents – was not recognisable to the market. My panic at that time was not completely unwarranted. In that first year, I had my share of being brutally dismissed by people who were unable to fit me into a recognisable box. And still, I needed enough power, in the form of financial resources, to earn a living so that I could continue to pursue my dream.
Seven years later, with a number of award-winning projects behind me, an inspiring rolodex of executive coaching clients, and an all-star team of associates – I am grateful that conformity was never an option. The things that make me different have shifted from sources of insecurity to sources of strategic advantage. By following these steps, I have managed to forge my own pathway to power, and continue to feel energised by the genuine impact of our work.
About the author
Justine Lutterodt is the Director of the Centre for Synchronous Leadership – a consultancy and think tank dedicated to systemic change through innovative approaches to leadership development. She brings to her practice fifteen years of experience working with senior executives from professional services and Fortune 500 companies. Aside from cats and table tennis, Justine is passionate about helping the next generation of leaders “walk the tightrope” between career success and staying true to their values.