This is an excerpt from an essay Michelle contributed to the book, Winning Without Compromising Yourself.
Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, George Bush, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey – people who have power are subject to both reverence and distain. They engender great loyalty and animosity based partially on the natural alliance we feel with what they choose to do with their power, but more so as a result of their personal choices based on the impact that power has on them. There’s been plenty written and discussed about how to gather and wield power, and there are plenty of people ready to tell you what to do with your power. But why is there so little discussion of the impact that power has on an individual other than the adage, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”?
Power is hugely important to how effectively leaders can lead. It’s crucial that we are comfortable with having it and that we use it effectively. We can have a lousy relationship with power if we are uncomfortable with using it or by attempting to hide from it. At the other extreme, it becomes very dangerous when we start to think that the power of the position that we hold is actually our own, our identity.
To understand and engage with the impact that power has on us, it’s crucial to make clear the distinction between positional power and personal power. By its very nature, positional power is transient. If we become overly seduced by its trappings, we will compromise ourselves and do anything in order to hold on to it. Also, if we lose sight that the power is in the position, not us, we can believe in our own invincibility and start to do things that are just, well, stupid. Have another look at the list of people I started with to see for yourself when this phenomena has and hasn’t occurred.
In contrast to positional power, personal power is our own internal power; we cultivate it in ourselves which makes it the only form of power that cannot be taken away. Every positional leader is destined to become an ex-something one day because power that we hold transiently is just a phase of life. This fact becomes much more manageable if we’ve consciously stayed powerful in ourselves throughout this process.
Here are six steps for developing your own personal power and having a great relationship with positional power:
• The Company You Keep
One of the keys used by people who are successful in navigating the impacts of power is the careful selection of the characteristics of the people who they keep closest to them. It’s this resource of honest feedback that helps compensate for self-reflection lost to demanding schedules and our simple human inability to see ourselves fully all the time.
The key to staying true to yourself is a ruthless commitment to authenticity and vision. Authenticity knows who you are detached from any role, office or association. Identify and recognize the differences between you and your job in order to guard and preserve your own identity.
Know what really matters to you in life as the root structure for your personal vision. Routinely ask yourself what does it look like for you to win at the game of life, and what are the values that are fundamental to you. On the flip side, figure out what tempts you, what could lead you astray from fulfilling your vision, and put plenty of barriers in between you and betraying yourself.
The most straightforward way to stay true to your vision is to keep your life simple. Our own personal fundamentals usually involve our loved ones and making a meaningful contribution with our lives. Be vigilantly ordinary; it helps you stay in touch with yourself. Just ask Warren Buffet. He still lives in the same house since before becoming “the Oracle of Omaha” and the second richest person in the world.
Cultivate humility. It is from your rooted and authentic self that you can better promote mutual understanding, making sure that people know you, the real you. View your accomplishments with detachment and acknowledge your faults to yourself and others, so that everybody understands you’re not perfect. That way, you’re not going to get trapped into pretending that you are.
Invest in more self-reflection, not less. Stay in touch with yourself by making sure you get plenty of agenda-free feedback. This is one of the main reasons many people work with a coach because it provides them great freedom to explore and plan in an environment where no one wants you to meet their needs or get feedback from a source who isn’t dependent on currying your favor.
When we consider both cultural icons and the people, we know it’s clear that power is a dual-edged sword to be treated with great care and respect. If you put as much care into cultivating your own personal power and staying in choice in the face of the impact that power has on you, you’ll be well on your way to personal sustainability and outstanding leadership.