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Can you handle power?

September 30, 2015

How do you feel about power?Power Is it something you crave or something which makes you feel uncomfortable? And how powerful do you actually feel as a person? I’ve been thinking a lot about power recently while working with some senior leaders. In particular, I’m interested in the match – or mismatch – between the power people get from their roles (their positional power) and their sense of themselves as powerful people. I’m defining power here as the ability to direct the course of events, to make things happen or prevent them from happening.

Who, little old me?

People who lack confidence or who are promoted very quickly often struggle to match their sense of themselves with their powerful role. Boy in business suitSometimes this is related to a fear of getting things wrong but often it’s just a disbelief that they are allowed to take important decisions, spend vast sums of money or have the final say. It’s like being given a suit that two sizes too big – you have to grow into it. It’s best to do this at a fairly comfortable pace else there’s a risk of puffing yourself up and acting in a way that’s inauthentic. You have to find your own natural authority.

Bring it on

Others have no difficulty seeing themselves as powerful. They tend to be naturally dominant individuals who take a lead even when they don’t have an official leadership role, such as in social situations. There is an authenticity about a leader who knows he or she has power and feels confident exercising it. But, of course, there is also a danger. I imagine that Vladimir Putin is pretty comfortable with power but I wouldn’t advocate him as a corporate role model.

It’s really important to remember that with power come scrutiny and that scrutiny is entirely legitimate. Whether it’s your staff, your peers, your customers, the board, a regulatory body, the general public or all of the above, people have the right to question your decisions and power cannot be taken for granted. Just ask the board of Volkswagen.

Dialling it down

The most mature leaders I’ve met are very comfortable with power but know how to rein it when necessary. Take Peter*, a very senior manager in a large European company and what you might call an alpha male, confident and exuding a natural authority. He is wise enough, however, to dial this down at times. He frequently softens his approach so that a) his staff find him approachable and b) other alpha males don’t automatically clash with him the minute he walks in the room. He can use his power but knows how to ensure it doesn’t work against him.

Influence vs power

There’s a third group I’ve noticed in my work with senior leaders – people who would probably be comfortable with power but are in situations where it is culturally inappropriate for them to wield it. Man talking intenselyThey settle for having influence instead, looking for consensus and accepting that they may not have the final say.

The first situation where this occurs is in organisations which value democracy, such as employee-owned businesses or professional services firms run on a partnership model. Often leaders in these organisations have more power than they realise and can become more effective by working out when they can act decisively and when they need to seek consensus.

The other situation where I’ve seen leaders opt for influence over power is in that group who historically tend not to hold power – women. I’m not suggesting for a moment that this applies to all women in managerial positions or that it applies only to women. But I do find that I have conversations about influence versus power far more often with women than with men.

Some incredibly capable women find it difficult to take that final step and see themselves as powerful leaders – rather than people with good ideas who influence powerful leaders – particularly if the organisational culture doesn’t support them to do so. By the way, if you think this is all in women’s minds, try to recall the last time you heard an authoritative man described as ‘bossy’.

In the shadow of Miss Triggs

You may be familiar with the famous Punch cartoon showing a group of people in a meeting, where the only woman present has just said something. “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs”, replies the chairman, “Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it”. The cartoon dates from 1988 and I’d like to think that things have moved on, but I’m not sure they always have, aside from the fact that Miss Triggs would now be addressed by her first name.


Jenny*, for example, a woman with ‘Senior Vice President’ in her job title, has internalised Miss Triggs to an astonishing degree. A confident, capable manager with over 30 years’ experience, she works for a very dominant boss in a senior leadership team with few other women. Jenny is a very modest person, who doesn’t really care about status or recognition. She has good ideas but it doesn’t matter to her whether she gets the credit for them. Jenny takes an almost gleeful delight in planting an idea, dropping a hint and then hearing her boss or a colleague put it forward as their own idea a week or so later.

This is actually doing her no favours; feedback suggests that her peers do not see her as influential. If they cotton on to what she’s doing, however, she may be seen as a political game player. Jenny is a fairly extreme case. She has influence in a manipulative way because she feels it’s the only option open to her. I’ve encouraged her to experiment with taking a stronger stand and claiming some of the power which should come with having a seat at the top table. It remains to be seen how much that upsets the dynamics within the group.

Power, it seems, is a complex mix of the responsibility which comes with your role, your own sense of authority and the context in which you are trying to exercise that authority. If you’re grappling with issues around power and influence, I’d be only too happy to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

*not their real names, obviously

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Photo credits

Power: Frederic Besson

Boy in suit: Stock free images

Discussion: Baltic Development Forum

Woman at board table: © Duey | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

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One Comment
  1. Really interesting article Caroline. I’ve often wondered why people change the way they talk to colleagues when they become a line manager. Is that related to the personal sense of power/positional power discrepancy?

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