Positions, power, and people

Mark Horstman, whose Career Tools podcast is usually on my iPhone, says there are three kinds of power in business.  That which comes from 1) position, 2) skills, and 3) relationships. Sometimes these coincide, but often I’ve found that people look to #1 as a substitute for #’s two and three.

In my heart, I would like to derive all my power from skills and relationships, for it seems the most genuine, lasting, and meaningful way to get ahead. In fact, for the first couple of decades of my career, I never even considered deriving any power from position. There’s a part of me that has less respect for those who depend solely on their position to win the devotion of those whom they lead.

If you are given (or, better yet earn) a position in which you lead others, there’s no reason you can’t also cultivate the other two kinds of power. What could be more powerful, in fact, than a leader who nourishes relationships and cultivates skills to win the respect of others.

The skills you develop will depend somewhat on the nature of your business, but we can all work to nurture relationships by:

  • Being fully present to others.
  • Learning the thing a person regards as most important, such as about his or her family, passions, and background.
  • Regarding the other person’s needs as important.

When I find myself unconsciously putting emphasis on my position as a source of power, or more often, when I aspire to some position of authority as a way to bolster others opinion of me, I know the source of that is insecurity. This results in a very unhappy life, as we can find ourselves in a never-ending spiral of striving for ever-higher places in the organization as a way to feel good about who we are.

Fighting this is much more difficult than it might first appear. Doing so requires a leap of faith that we are useful to our employers and others even when we’re not calling the shots. It means we need to move projects forward through collaboration and persuasion rather than autocratic directives. It also means that how others regard us as colleagues and leaders is more important to us than the title after our name.

A power based on relationships and skills has a distinct advantage over that based on position: You cannot lose those relationships and skills without your complicity. Your position can change with a reorganization or reassignment. Those relationships you’ve developed will stay intact if you nourish them.

Your power at work can reside in something as slender as a title or as strong as the relationships and skills you’ve worked hard to earn; your decision about this will set the tone of how you spend your time, and how you live your life.



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