For organizational leaders, there are two main types of power: positional and personal. Positional power comes from titles: chief executive officer, vice president, director, or manager. Those with personal power may or may not have titles, but their charisma, relationships, and influence draw others to them. While some people have one or the other, the leaders who make the biggest impact have a blend of both.
Author Simon Sinek tells a great story about positional power. He once heard a former Under Secretary of Defense speak at a conference. Midway through his remarks, the man paused to take a sip from a Styrofoam cup. He noted that the previous year, when he’d still been the Under Secretary, he’d flown business class, a car met him at the airport, someone had met him at the hotel and escorted him to the venue, where he’d been met backstage with a cup of coffee in a ceramic cup. On this occasion, however, no longer the Under Secretary, he’d flown coach, took a taxi to his hotel, and found his own way backstage to the venue. There, when he asked about a cup of coffee, someone pointed him toward the coffee maker and he poured his own coffee into the Styrofoam cup. “It occurs to me,” he continued, “the ceramic cup they gave me last year . . . it was never meant for me at all. It was meant for the position I held. I deserve a Styrofoam cup. This is the most important lesson I can impart to all of you,” he continued. “All the perks, all the benefits and advantages you may get for the rank or position you hold, they aren’t meant for you. They are meant for the role you fill. And when you leave your role, which eventually you will, they will give the ceramic cup to the person who replaces you.”
That’s a vivid illustration of humility, but it should also be a challenge to those who have positional power in organizations. How can you make the highest and best use of the positional power you have?
This is where choice comes into play. Personal power accrues to you based on the choices you make: how you treat others and build relationships, how well you collaborate, what tone you set in your interactions, whether you follow through on commitments, and a thousand other ways in the course of your day.
So how will you choose to use your power? Here are a few suggestions:
- Show your humanity – People in positions of power often feel they need to appear perfect; that unless they’re strong, confident, and always have the right answer, others will begin to question their leadership. Employees aren’t loyal to a position; they’re loyal to a person. They want to see your humanity. When you make a mistake, own it and do what you need to do to make it right. Get comfortable saying “I don’t know”. Show your sense of humour. When others see your humanity, they’re more likely to show their own.
- Model behavior – Your behavior sets the tone for the organization. If you want to see the organization’s values brought to life in the organization, you need to set the example. When there’s a discrepancy between what you say and what you do, people will pay much more attention to what you do. Choose your behavior with intention.
- Recognize others – When things go well, shine a spotlight on the individuals who made significant contributions, and highlight the work of the teams responsible. When people feel seen and heard, they engage more fully.
- Welcome input – The best ideas usually come from those closest to the work, and people are more likely to sustain what they help create. Involve others in the creation and implementation of initiatives. Encourage feedback and take it seriously. As people often tell titled leaders what they think they want to hear, you may need to devote extra effort to seeking out honest opinions. If you want people to tell you what they think, you need to show them you’re listening.
- Communicate transparently – Your colleagues need to know they can trust the information they get from you, and the best way to do that is to communicate as transparently as possible. Communicate frequently, clearly, with candor, and through multiple channels: face-to-face, video, email, etc. It is rare for people in organizations to say they get too much information from their leaders.
Being in a position of power is a privilege and an obligation: a privilege because you’re given a larger sphere of influence than you might have otherwise, and an obligation to use that influence well. Making the highest and best use of your positional and personal power creates organizations where people engage not out of compliance but commitment. Every interaction is an opportunity. Every action has an impact. Every moment is a choice. Choose wisely.