Leaders must understand 3 kinds of power

Power is a fascinating topic.  As leaders, we want to have enough power to be taken seriously, but not so much that we intimidate our employees. As employees we want to have enough power to get the job done but not so much that we intimidate our boss. Typically we equate power with influence and the ability to get what we want, while lack of power means falling prey to those who have it.  We all worry about other people misusing their power. But is this the whole story?  According to Cedar Barstow, Boulder-based researcher and author of The Right Use of Power, power has many dimensions, and the more we learn about them, the more effective we can be as leaders.

According to Cedar, there are three types of power that can all exert influence — sometimes in unexpected ways:

1) The first type of power is personal power, sometimes known as “presence,” which is based on self-awareness, self-knowledge and insight. Everyone has some level of personal power, and it can be cultivated through a variety of methods including mindfulness, yoga and leadership coaching.

2) The second type of power is role power, which is based on the various roles we play in life, such as manager, parent, therapist, etc.  When we have role power, no matter how benevolent we might be, we have power over our employees, children and clients. How we use this power skillfully is the key to good leadership.

3) The third type of power is status or societal power.  This kind of power reflects our position in society, relative to others, and is a function of our economic, ethnic, gender and racial status.  Status power is granted by society based on the color of our skin, the parents we were born to and our sexual orientation. This power is often associated with privilege — the unearned benefits that accrue to people who belong to a certain ethnic, gender and economic status. We don’t have control over this power, however, we can be aware of it and understand how it can impact others.

These three types of power play out in dynamic ways in our lives, particularly in our leadership roles, and if we are unaware of them we may suddenly find that we are in conflicts that we are not sure how to handle.  For example, if I have an abundance of personal power, that helps me access well-being and confidence and ward off negativity and adversity.  If I have role power, I may have the ability to hire and fire, to evaluate, or to prescribe.  If I have status power, I have privilege that may be unconscious.

As it turns out, the issue is not power, but how we handle it. Our intentions might be good, but the impact of our actions may be different than we expected, especially when we have status power on top of role power. If we are in an “up power” position we need to take 150 percent responsibility for our relationships and our use of power.  Those in “down power” positions sometimes assume that they have no power, however, they also have the power to influence and that power can also be wielded effectively. 

In my experience, exploring the right use of power can lead to rich and provocative conversations — especially in the workplace.  These conversations are not always comfortable but they are critical if we wish to create authentic, resilient organizations and communities.

If you are interested in pursuing this further, here are a few reflection questions:  What if I have power but I don’t feel powerful?   What are some of my sources of power?  How can I become more aware of the impact of my power on others?  Power is an important aspect of leadership and the more we can understand it, the more effective we can be. 

Susan Skjei, Ph.D., is the director of the Authentic Leadership Center at Naropa University and author of the online course Mindful at Work. Contact her at sskjei@naropa.edu

Power is a fascinating topic.  As leaders, we want to have enough power to be taken seriously, but not so much that we intimidate our employees. As employees we want to have enough power to get the job done but not so much that we intimidate our boss. Typically we equate power with influence and the ability to get what we want, while lack of power means falling prey to those who have it.  We all worry about other people misusing their power. But is this the whole story?  According to Cedar Barstow, Boulder-based researcher and author of The Right Use of Power, power has many dimensions, and the more we learn about them, the more effective we can be as leaders.

According to Cedar, there are three types of power that can all exert influence — sometimes in unexpected ways:

1) The first type of power is personal power, sometimes known as “presence,” which is based on self-awareness, self-knowledge and insight. Everyone has some level of personal power, and it can be cultivated through a variety of methods including mindfulness, yoga and leadership coaching.

2) The second type of power is role power, which is based on the various roles we play in life, such as manager, parent, therapist, etc.  When we have role power, no matter how benevolent we might be, we have power over our employees, children and clients. How we use this power skillfully is…