Defining Your Personal Power

Defining Your Personal Power


“Personal power is the ability to stand on your own two feet with a smile on your face in the middle of a universe that contains a million ways to crush you.” 

― J.Z. Colby

Let’s talk about personal power. I use the term power frequently in my work. Power in authenticity, power in using one’s voice, stepping into your power, and even Amy Cuddy’s power poses.  

But what does power mean? Sometimes when I mention power, people, especially women, will say, “Oh no, I don’t want to be powerful.” And when I dig deeper, I find a lot of people are afraid of power because they have the idea that it is negative or forceful. That’s not what I mean at all. 

There is a book called The Power Paradox: How we Gain and Lose Influence” by Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist. In the book he talks about the old Machiavellian philosophy of power that treated it as something that is grabbed. Taken. It’s about manipulation and sometimes even about force.  

The newer view of power is that it is something that is gained and something that is granted to you by others. We gain power by acting in ways that improve the lives of other people in our social networks. This is true at work, in social organizations of different kinds, and in our friendships, romantic partnerships and even in our families.   

“When we get comfortable with our own strength, discomfort changes shape. We remember our power.”

Jen Knox

This is the difference between power over and power with. Some behaviors that demonstrate ‘power over’ are: Coercive force, bullying, intimidating, lying, manipulating, and stepping on others. People resort to coercive force when their power is actually slipping which makes them feel less powerful. 

‘Power with’ uses the behaviors of non-violence, open communication, collaboration, co-creating and diplomacy.   

One recent study examined 323 opposition movements from 1900 to 2006, in places ranging from East Timor to countries of the former Soviet bloc. Some of these movements used the tactics of coercive force – bombs, assassinations, torture, and civilian killings. Others relied on nonviolent tactics – marches, vigils, petitions, and boycotts. The latter were twice as likely (53 percent versus 26 percent) to lead to achieving gains in political power, winning broad support from citizens, and contributing to the fall of oppressive regimes. 

Bottom line: Keltner’s definition of power is about making a difference in the world by influencing others and practicing these four principles:  

  1. Power is about altering the states of others.  
  2. Power is part of every relationship and interaction.
  3. Power is found in everyday actions.
  4. Power comes from empowering others in social networks.

How do you use your personal power to influence and persuade others? 

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