When I was six, my best friend had been mean to me for no apparent reason.
I came home from school crying, the injustice of her behavior leaving me hurt and confused. My mother comforted me and suggested that perhaps my friend might be jealous. I stopped crying long enough to contemplate this. Why would she be jealous of me? It made no sense!
But it does now.
My mother had a keen eye when it came to relationships. She understood the politics of power, envy, and status, even among six-year-olds. She taught me to always consider what motivated the conflict in my life: competition, jealousy, hurt feelings? So, I grew up thinking in terms of power–who had more, who had less, and how it tended to fluctuate from moment to moment and situation to situation.
In high school, my friend, Chris, was a popular football player whose status seemed unbeatable in the lunchroom, but which shrunk dramatically in English class when he had to read his essays to the class. The shy girl whose name no one knew suddenly grew in stature when her picture was in the newspaper for winning a scholarship to an Ivy League school.
What I noticed then, but didn’t have words for, is that power is contextual. It’s a complex ranking system that’s constantly shifting based on a slew of variables, much like the weather. There isn’t just one thing that bestows power, but multiple intersecting experiences that conspire to create a unique and individual landscape.
More Than One Power
Popular culture and much of the literature on leadership would have us think of power as one thing, when in fact, we don’t possess power, but powers.
My high school friend had high status as a star athlete, but low status academically. The shy girl wasn’t popular, but her intelligence gave her higher status beyond the pecking order of high school.
And it gets even more complex: low status can drive you to develop inner strength, giving you high status later on in life. And high status can even result in low rank: being shielded from hardship and challenge can interfere with your drive and resilience, hampering your success at work and in building meaningful relationships.
When speaking of power, we also tend to overlook the incredible benefit and power associated with intangibles like physical and mental health, birth order, and family and community attachment–yet these can determine our sense of power in the world just as much as race, gender, class, and nationality.
The Power You Can Take With You
Fluency with power means recognizing how status changes in different situations, and thus developing a variety of powers and knowing which one to use to fit the context. And it means developing your less quantifiable yet more robust personal powers.
Your personal powers are most effective precisely because they’re personal to you—they don’t depend on other people’s perceptions, a social hierarchy, or an organizational chart. They’re things like resilience, confidence, core self-esteem, emotional stability, and a sense of purpose and meaning. Your personal powers are the most rock-solid powers you have because they are yours to use across all contexts and in every situation.
When you only have one power—or if your power relies on external validation–you’re limited in who and what you can influence. Think about it:
- The power you have leading your team isn’t going to help you when you have to give a presentation to upper management.
- Your subject matter expertise won’t help you have a difficult conversation with a peer.
- Neither of the above will help you rock a high stakes job interview.
Developing your personal power will help you thrive and prosper across all the situations within which you lead. But, it means weaning yourself off of dependent power sources. Don’t just cultivate the power that others bestow. Dig deep within to find and use all that you are to benefit yourself and the world around you.