Have you ever:
- Avoided giving critical feedback because it felt awkward and hard?
- Been asked a question you weren’t prepared for and tried to fake it?
- Avoided dealing with a conflict between team members and just hoped it would work itself out?
What do these scenarios have in common?
You’ve sidestepped your responsibility because you didn’t feel up to the task.
Which points to a key paradox about power: To act powerfully, you need to feel powerful!
Whenever we’re faced with challenges that trigger us, that produce an emotional response, positional power doesn’t do much to help us. We need something more robust; we need personal power. While positional power gives us a license to act, it’s our personal power that gives us the capacity to act.
Personal power emerges out of your skills, characteristics, intelligence, and life experience. It’s inalienable. It can’t be taken from you, though you can sometimes lose connection to your personal power under situations of distress or despair. Personal power helps you deliver difficult feedback, face a skeptical audience, challenge the status quo, and be challenged by others. It’s your inner sense of stability, self-regulation, and self-confidence that allows you to respond to the moment with your best thinking.
The greatest achievements in our world have come from social activists, innovators and change agents who lacked positional power and social status but had profound personal power.
Consider Nelson Mandela. Mandela spent twenty-seven years as a political prisoner during South Africa’s apartheid regime, living in an 8x7-foot cement cell furnished only with a straw mat. Verbally and physically abused by prison guards, he nonetheless saw himself as a teacher and moral guide—to other prisoners, to guards, and to the government.
Mandela felt powerful. He considered himself a leader, even though no one else ratified it. He had no social status, no positional authority, nothing but his own deep well of insight and wisdom. What he had was personal power.
Research highlights how crucial our sense of personal power is for leading effectively. Under stress or pressure, or in moments where we lack self-confidence, we’re at risk of reacting emotionally, of using our positional power to protect and defend. Reacting poorly from a position of power has dire consequences:
- In a study of leaders in the Israeli military, leaders who suffered from attachment anxiety were more likely to use their power in self-serving ways.1
- Male managers who felt inadequate, after gaining a promotion, were more likely to be sexually aggressive compared to those who did not feel inadequate.2
- Male online gamers who were less skilled, and had a lower performance rank than their male peers, displayed more hostility towards female players.3
One of the most important things we can do in a position of power is to develop our personal power. Without it, we’re at risk of misusing, or even abusing, our power.
The Three Critical Components of Personal Power
No matter where our personal power comes from—life experience, emotional intelligence, social skills, personal traits and characteristics—it contains three critical components which can be developed: courage, attention, and purpose.
Using the analogy of a sailboat, let’s look at each three in turn:
A key component of personal power is courage. Courage doesn’t mean bravery or taking risks or putting yourself in danger. Courage means facing difficulties because you know that growth only comes through facing your challenges. As Joseph Campbell says in the Hero’s Journey, “In the cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.”
Courage can be developed by making learning your goal, by developing a growth mindset. When challenges happen, you don’t feel victimized, blame others, or give up because you know you will learn from them. You will get stronger, smarter, more competent through wrestling with obstacles. This attitude is best captured in the quote by Epictetus: “On the occasion of every accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use.”
A courageous leader isn’t afraid of telling the truth, even when the truth is bad. They know that rumors, conspiracy theories, and misinformation abound during times of uncertainty, which can be more deadly than the reality of the crisis itself. An example of courageous leadership is German Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. In a remarkably honest and blunt press conference, she told the German people, “The situation is serious. Take it seriously.” Up to 70% of us will be infected she cautioned. And due to her courage and truth-telling, Germany was able to contain the pandemic better than many other countries.
Courage is the crew of your sailboat.
The second core component of personal power is attention. You might have the courage to face challenges, but without attention, you might face the wrong set of challenges. Attention is presence of mind, ability to concentrate, the mental focus to know what has to be done. You—and not your device, other people, or your calendar—determine when, what, and how you focus.
Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, says that the most important leadership attribute is clarity of focus, and the chief task of a leader is “bring clarity into a situation where none exists.”
Harnessing your focus gives you power. Without the capacity to direct your attention, you are a leaf in the wind, blown about every which way. You respond to everything but accomplish nothing. To develop attention, you must quiet the inner and outer voices and develop your emotional self-regulation, so you don’t react to every little thing. And above all, you must set boundaries to have time to think, reflect, and contemplate.
Attention is the sail that captures and directs the wind on your sailboat.
Courage and attention are central but meaningless if they’re not aimed at the right goal. Purpose is the third, and final component of personal power. Being connected to a greater purpose enables you to use your power effectively. The sense of meaning and mission in life means you don’t get caught up in momentary dramas. Your day isn’t a matter of ticking items off your to-do list, but of connecting your every action to your greater goal. Having purpose gives you resilience; you’re more able to reset after failure because you have a north star guiding you.
Purpose directs us under crisis and extreme stress. Consider the actions of the leader who led the rescue of the 33 miners trapped in the mine in the 2010 Chilean mine accident. Laurence Golborne, beset by pressure from all sides, and performing under the glare of the global media, had to walk to his place of work every day through throngs of weeping family members, television cameras, and reporters. What helped him stay calm and kept his anxiety in check was keeping his eyes on the ultimate purpose and reminding himself daily of his mission—to rescue the men. And this, above everything else, kept the distractions, stress, and anxieties at bay.
To develop purpose be like the Stoics who used death as their guide, making it a practice to contemplate every choice, every action from the perspective of mortality. What, if anything, do you want your life to be about? What will stand out to you as meaningful from your death bed?
Purpose is the rudder on your sailboat.
People may obey your positional power, but they are inspired by your personal power. Personal power is the difference between mere compliance and enthusiastic commitment. It’s your courage, attention, and connection to purpose that allows you to use your positional power to the greatest advantage.
 Davidovitz, Rivka & Mikulincer, Mario & Shaver, Phillip & Izsak, Ronit & Popper, Micha. (2007). Leaders as Attachment Figures: Leaders' Attachment Orientations Predict Leadership-Related Mental Representations and Followers' Performance and Mental Health. Journal of personality and social psychology. 93. 632-50. 10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1682.
 Williams, M. J., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Guillory, L. E. (2017). Sexual aggression when power is new: Effects of acute high power on chronically low-power individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(2), 201–223. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000068
 Insights into Sexism: Male Status and Performance Moderates Female-Directed Hostile and Amicable Behaviour. Kasumovic MM, Kuznekoff JH (2015) Insights into Sexism: Male Status and Performance Moderates Female-Directed Hostile and Amicable Behaviour. PLOS ONE 10(7): e0131613. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0131613