Want to be more powerful? 3 myths about what it takes

Do a Google image search for ‘women in power’ and your results will amount to ubiquitous stock imagery (a woman balancing a spinning globe on her fingertip; another tying a cape to her business suit as she prepares for lift off) and TIME magazine covers featuring Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton and the Queen of England.

As Sara Parsons discussed in her webinar Use power and politics wisely, such imagery reinforces the clichéd view of what it means for a woman to be powerful – that true power belongs to those select few who’ve made it onto the cover of magazines or into the upper echelons of corporations, governments and kingdoms. This is just one of the myths surrounding women in power.


MYTH: Power is defined by hierarchies

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any,” said American activist Alice Walker.

In the late 1950s, psychologists French and Raven presented two overarching categories of power. There’s formal power, which comes through obtaining certain levels in organisations and is plain to see by all. And there are more personal forms of power – those that come from your unique skills, values, beliefs, charisma and emotional intelligence. 

ACTION: Understand the sources of your own power, suggests everywoman Associate Sara Parsons. You might want to work up a SWOT analysis, determine your career values, or spend time thinking about what makes you a unique and valuable asset to your organisation – even if there’s someone doing an identical job, the experiences and life lessons that have led you both up to this point will make you different.


MYTH: Power comes from external accolades

Your SWOT analysis may well have thrown up sources of external power – qualifications and vocational skills, as well as on the job learning. Other sources of power come from our own thoughts. “Often the very first stumbling block in finding our power,” says Sara Parsons, “is losing the power we have over our own negative thoughts”.

“Some people think less about a glass ceiling and more about a sticky floor. Sometimes we’re not rising because of our own mindsets or the other things that people have thrown on that sticky floor for us.”

ACTION: Work on eliminating negative self-talk. Leadership experts often talk about negative internal chatter as your ‘gremlin’ – that horrid little creature who sits on your shoulder and tells you you’re not good enough or are destined to fail in your current or long-term endeavours. Techniques for banishing his impact include visualising your gremlin as a small, powerless and pathetic creature; ‘reality testing’ whereby you challenge your gremlin’s statements by looking for hard evidence – what is the evidence you ‘can’t’ succeed or complete a challenging task?; and using ‘goal-directed thinking’ – channelling your gremlin’s words into a plan for achieving a realistic goal, e.g. my gremlin says I’m no good at public speaking; how can I turn this thought into an action, i.e. asking my boss to give me feedback on my public speaking or engage a mentor to give me help?


MYTH: Power corrupts

There are multiple examples of politicians whose step into leadership has set them on a path for unethical practices. And sure there are leaders in the corporate world who use their power – over people and even entire communities – to effect less than positive change, so much so that 40% of everywoman Network members cannot feel positive about the word ‘power’.

But the expression ‘power corrupts’ is often wrongly delivered in absolute terms - a fact which has been disproven by research. A 2001 study concluded definitively that while selfish power-holders went on to become more selfish when given more power, power-holders whose actions were more selfless simply continued on this path when awarded more power.

ACTION: Begin to customise a more positive definition of power for yourself: “Think of all the objects in your home or office that require power,” says Sara Parsons, from electrical appliances, to your car, to your morning shower. In this sense, power is about something “kick-starting into action; requiring energy in order to drive something forward”. Now consider the ways in which your office requires human energy: turning up for your shift or staying late to get something finished, generating enthusiasm and motivation, brainstorming and idea creation, productivity and innovation. Beginning to think about sources of power as sources of energy could enable a subtle mind shift which allows you to better harness and utilise your own power to make things happen and influence situations and people.


MYTH: To seize power necessitates stealing it from someone else

Forget about military coups and overthrown governments - in the book Influence Without Authority, authors David Bradford and Allan Cohen urge employees in the most junior ranks of organisations to power up with gusto. Power, they say, does not come in fixed and finite amounts; taking more for yourself does not create a reduction in the power of those around you. Rather, there is a net increase in the overall power, “and therefore an overall increase in the capacity to make things happen”.

ACTION: Consider the many ways in which you are a source of power (or energy) to your line manager or another senior figure in your organisation – by supplying information that prevents him or her from making mistakes, by bringing a fresh perspective or a new idea, by taking on heavier workloads in order to free up him or her to focus on the ‘bigger picture’? Taking the approach whereby your relationship is collaborative with you in a junior partnership role, your increased power, far from sabotaging your superior’s own command, becomes a win-win situation whereby both you and the boss become more powerful, and, by extension, more successful.