Whether you closely followed this year’s Winter Olympics or simply caught snippets on TV or social media, it’s hard not to be thrilled by the performances of the world’s greatest athletes. My favorite moment came when Ester Ledecka from the Czech Republic, ranked 43rd in World Cup standings, stunned the world and herself by winning gold in the Women’s Super G. Ledecka, skiing on a pair of borrowed skis, is actually a snowboarder and only part-time ski racer. US skier, Lindsey Vonn, who was favored to win, said wistfully, “I wish I had as much athleticism as she does.”
No doubt some skill and a “go-for-broke” attitude went into her win. But Vonn was right, sheer athleticism and conditioning counts for a lot.
Elite athletes spend years developing their aerobic bases to have optimal conditioning. They train for long periods of time at low intensity to build their aerobic and teach their body how to utilize oxygen as efficiently as possible. The broader and bigger your aerobic base, the more fit you are.
So, how does this relate to power?
Well, I think about Power Intelligence the way I think about conditioning. The most power-smart leaders have a broad base of power. This doesn’t mean they are all-powerful—not at all. It means they have and use many different kinds of power: a broad base of diverse powers, so that when it comes time to perform under stress or pressure, or they’re in a new situation that doesn’t favor their go-to superpower, they have an arsenal of other powers to draw from.
Typically, people tend to rely on their one or two powers, such as their technical expertise, their positional authority, or their relational abilities. Yet in fact, the situation—and not the individual’s preferences—determines which power is most effective.
What are the different kinds of power that are useful in different situations?
Authority, or positional power, is the power that resides in your role or position. It’s the legal power you have to hire, fire, promote, demote, and make decisions. It’s a power that belongs to the role; it doesn’t belong to you personally. When you leave the role, you leave that authority behind. And it’s also a power to use sparingly—if you use it, you lose it, as I’ve written before.
Expertise is the power that comes from your knowledge and skill. When you have the answers or information people need,, this gives you power.
Similarly, you may also have the power of experience, which can be part of expertise power, but it doesn’t have to be attached to knowledge. Experience may come from being older and wiser, or having seniority. It’s an informal kind of power, but influential nonetheless.
Relationship power is the power you have through being able to get along with people, even difficult people. You make relationships easily. People are willing to do things for you, and you know how to navigate tricky relationship situations. Relationship power is one of the most important powers we can have in life.
Personal power or influence is the power that resides in your personality, as well as your emotional and social intelligence. It manifests as your ability to persuade, make an impact, endure challenges, and engage productively with others. Personal power is independent of social status or position; you can access and use your personal power regardless of what others say or do or the status you hold.
And of course, there’s social status. We are born with varying degrees of power due to our social identity, things like skin color, family name, wealth, gender, and education. We can also earn social status, but very often, the social status we accrue in life is based on the access and resources our innate status gives us.
There’s also informal power, which comes from your ability to successfully navigate the norms of a given group or organization. Informal power manifests as things like seniority, popularity, degree of belonging or insider-ness, and the like.
This is far from a conclusive list, and there are many ways to divide up the power pie. But here’s the thing: to be the most effective power user, you need all of these powers, or at least many of them, because each context you’re in requires a different mix of powers.
When you over-rely on just one power, you’re at risk. The minute the situation changes, you can either lose your effectiveness, or, you’ll overuse the one you have, even if it’s not appropriate, and thus misuse your power.
What are some other examples of that?
- At work, people look up to you because of your technical knowledge and expertise. But when it comes time to making a presentation to a group of senior leaders who want the big picture, your detailed technical expertise doesn’t really help you. In fact, you’ll lose the group by going too deeply into what you know, and what you’re comfortable with.
- Maybe you don’t have much positional power at work; you’re in a more junior role, but your relationship power makes you influential. You’re able to collaborate and work well with others, which is highly valued in your company. Here you’ve used another kind of power to achieve beyond the limits of your role.
- Oops—suddenly, you change jobs. Your new company is very bureaucratic and hierarchical. Procedural knowledge and technical competence are valued highly, much more so than relationship power, even in some cases, more than positional power. Now you are scrambling to be effective and influential.
- Or, let’s say you’re highly regarded as a manager who can make tough decisions and execute. But some decisions require input and information from others. At this moment, your well-developed positional authority won’t help you as much as personal power and relationship power. You need to encourage others to speak up, solicit ideas from others, and sit back and listen. If you continued to use positional authority, and didn’t solicit or utilize other’s knowledge, you could end up making a bad decision.
- What about the opposite? You’re well-liked as a manager because of your ability to collaborate and get people to work together. But what happens when you have to act unilaterally, and make a decision that your team won’t like or agree with? If you can’t use your positional power, you’re going to run into trouble.
As you can see, over-relying on one power makes you unstable. It’s like having only one kind of currency and trying to use it everywhere you go: some countries just don’t accept it, and you find you have no purchasing power.
The broad base of power gives you many different diverse kinds of power to use depending on what the situation calls for. You might not win any gold medals, but like Ester Ledecka, you’re not just limited to one event—you have what it takes to compete and be effective across many different contexts.