The Soft Stuff is The Hard Stuff:

The Importance of Personal Power in Leadership

Who was the best boss you ever worked for and why? What made him or her different from the rest? Why would you have gone more than just the extra mile for them? One word probably answers all–inspiration.

Employees are starved for leadership that inspires, especially during uncertain times. Organizations will have greater success moving through transitions and uncertain or difficult times if positional leaders make conscious commitments to growing their personal power. And who gets to say if titled leaders wield personal power? The followers. Many leaders think they possess personal power if they believe they do, but that’s not the case. If followers believe their leader has personal power and influence (with them), then it’s so. If followers are not inspired by the leader’s style, all the leader really possesses is positional power; and while a fair amount can be accomplished with positional power alone, it’s nowhere near as persuasive and influential as a leader who demonstrates both.

Personal power is the ability to persuade, influence and inspire others to action, regardless of official workplace titles or positions. Positional power gets things done, of course, but it often governs through fear and autocratic strategies. For whom are you more inspired to go the extra mile–the tyrant or the inspirer? Sometimes–it’s true–exercising pure positional power is required and “right”, especially when putting out “fires” or working with demanding deadlines, but leaning too heavily on positional power, too much of the time, will undermine employees’ commitment. Positional power governs by right–the right of the granted and, hopefully, earned position. Personal power governs by inspiration. Organizations need leaders–from frontline managers to senior executive, alike–who can regularly deliver a conspicuous blend of both positional and personal power.

So there’s the rhetoric–there’s the “who” and the “what”. Now comes the “how”. How can a positional leader assess and grow their personal power and develop their self-leadership? All too often, when leaders are asked, “What do you do to develop your self-leadership?”, the response is, “Nothing”, or, “Not much…it’s all very good in principle but, honestly, who has the time? That stuff is a ‘nice to do’, not a ‘need to do’ sort of thing.” In response, I’m reminded of the saying, “Do what you love, the money will follow”. It’s the same with leadership, “Develop your positive and “right” self-leadership style and expertise and the personal power will follow.”

Here are eight tips for nurturing self-leadership:

stressed out

1. Recognize your stress levels by watching bodily symptoms: Unhealthy stress can make you “react”, rather than “respond” to colleagues, other staff members and, on occasion, even external clients or customers; and that adversely impacts your health. Work on carrying a minimum of unhealthy stress, so that you have the vitality and energy to coach, mentor, encourage and support others. Ask a colleague, or another staff member who gets to observe you daily, to candidly share their observations and feedback about your attitude, behaviour and conspicuous stress levels when interacting with others. Assess your physical health. Be honest. If you can’t remember the last time you had a medical physical, now’s the time to book it, Danno! First decide, then take action, on aspects of your physical health that you know need improvement and may be undermining your preferred leadership style and demeanor.

2. Initiate formal and informal celebrations of organizational, or team, milestones: Simple acts of real life phone calls or voice mails of thanks and acknowledgement, written notes or e-mails, and sincere and recurring encouragement to move towards identified personal and/or organizational goals, goes a long way. People are naturally attracted to celebration. Consider annual staff professional development events for even more learning and celebration.

3. Remember that praise is a renewable resource: It’s quite doubtful that you’ll ever hear an employee complaining that they receive too much praise. I was recently interviewed by the Globe and Mail (Canada’s national newspaper) for 70 minutes on the topic of, “In Praise of Praise in the Workplace” (there was lots to say!). Writer Jeff Buckstein’s end result article (just published on June 15, 2005 in the Globe’s Career Section) shared that a recent Globe web poll revealed “…27 per cent of 2,331 respondents reported that they had never received a compliment from their boss. For another 10 per cent, the last compliment came more than a year ago, for 18 per cent, more than a month ago and for 16 per cent more than a week ago. Just 30 per cent said they’d received a compliment from their boss within the past week.” Sadly, there appears to be plenty leaders who embrace the philosophy, “Why should I have to hand hold my people and give them praise all the time, like an IV drip? No one ever did that for me ! I/we hired them, didn’t we? That should be praise enough to last them all of their livelong working days! They still have jobs, don’t they? When did we all get so soft-in-the-middle, needy and koom-by-a?” Oooch, Ouch! Know anyone who sounds like this? Perhaps it’s time to rethink the value of praise and celebration of what employees bring to the workplace table.

4. Focus on power-full-ness rather than power-less-ness. Even as an official leader, you don’t always have ultimate control over everything. When a leader focuses on power-less-ness, rather than on what morsels of power-full-ness remain, they may pass this hopeless feeling on to employees, and that may very well impact motivation and productivity. Look for personal areas in which you can take charge.


5. Identify ways in which you want your leadership measured. Project your own assessment of your leadership, based on your identified measures; participate in leadership assessment tools that include followership feedback. Establish a mentor or coach to provide insights and perspectives on your leadership, in both your professional and personal life. Be clear on who you wish to call upon for leadership advise.

6. Demonstrate your passion by getting clear about your personal values and vision. Take at least 15 minutes daily to “go within’, to reflect on where you’ve been, where you are, and where you want to go next.

7. Actively learn about leadership as a subject of continuous study. It’s been said that anyone can become an expert on any subject after about seven years, if they will commit to an hour of dedicated daily reading or learning on that specific subject. Read leadership or organization effectiveness books, listen to audio recordings of books or lectures/presentations about progressive leadership. Attend seminars, workshops, executive learning forums and annual professional association conferences, too. “Who has the time?”, you may ask. You do–more than you think. Do the math. How much time per week do you think a good leader should invest in developing their leadership savvy? five per cent? ten? more? For argument’s sake, let’s crunch the numbers based on a 50 hour work week. Even if we’re only talking about ten percent of a leader’s time per week, that translates to five solid study hours. At one hour per day, you could still have weekends off! Experiment with rising 30 minutes earlier. Use this new found early morning time to quietly and serenely drink in self-leadership themes focused on personal development, to inspire and fortify yourself for your crazy busy day ahead.

Dedicate the other thirty minutes of time per day to reading organization improvement and leadership development material. You may ask, “How will I ever find that other 30 minutes of reading or study time per day, when it’s already jam packed until I flop into bed and finally exhale at midnight?” Answer: Look for ways to be more efficient with all that “in-between” time that so many of your days do contain, eg. car travel time or transit time? use your cd or cassette player to listen to your learning; air travel time? read or listen to selected learnings while “hanging” in departure lounges, on the tarmac waiting for the flight to (finally) take off, and even in the air (instead of piddling time away watching the latest “chewing gum for the brain” feature-film or flipping through the carrier’s in-flight magazine); idle evening hotel room time? yes, I know it’s nice to have the remote to yourself once in a while, but, really, don’t you have better things to do with your time? use at least some of this hotel room time to complete your second thirty minutes of promised study. Even sitting in the car, waiting to pick up the kids from, eg. school, baseball practice, etc., can become learning time.

8. Risk honest conversations with colleagues and followers to better understand yourself. Learn the art of “right ” language for delivering and receiving feedback. Surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth as they see it, and make absolutely sure they know it’s ok to do so. These individuals are your accountability partners. Of course there will be times when unilateral, “executive decisions” must be made, but there are also times when you can politically afford to “give it up and give it over” to those “partners” whose opinions you trust and wish to hear. Every now and then try saying, “I’m on the brink of making this decision, and have my own opinion about the direction we should take, but before I blither on, I’d like to hear your perspective; two heads are better than one, so, what do you think?”

The more you develop your self-leadership competencies and qualities, the more open your heart is to people who need leadership from you, and the more personal power you’ll automatically have with them. To the cynical skeptic, this may seem like a lot of “soft stuff” hooey, but, as author Richard J. Leider reminds us:

“The soft stuff is the hard stuff”,

And, as author, Jim Clemmer, points out:

“Life accumulates.
What we’re going to be tomorrow depends upon what we’re becoming today. Stunted personal growth creates little leaders, tiny teams, and pygmy organizations. How high is your current growth rate taking you?”

And speaking of “how high”…all airlines share the same safety instructions before “flying high”: in an emergency, should the oxygen masks drop, get yourself outfitted first, and then help others for whom you care. If you’re in a position of official leadership, whether within the parameters of your day job or elsewhere, the same principle applies…take care of developing your (leadership) self first, so that you can be of maximum use and value to others. Those “followers” will then gladly follow, because your personal power and influence will have caught up to your positional.

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