On Leadership, Positivity and Notions of Power

Positive Power

What makes for a “powerful” leader? Is it authority, position, or seniority? Could it also be personal gravitas in the way the leader speaks and acts?

The interesting thing about power is that leaders and followers alike have an opinion about it but rarely take the time to try and define what it really is – it just happens.

We can better understand power and learn how to make it work better for you and those who interact with you.

Notions of Power

Old Notions of Power:

Power is contained within the long-lasting, durable structures of society: the police, the political machines, doctors, lawyers, educators – anyone or anything that is tied to a bureaucracy.  Power is almost always a negative connotation – it’s “power over” somebody – making that person do something that he wouldn’t have done were it not for your “power play”.

New Notions of Power:

Real power in our times comes more from what a leader says and does – not from the organizational architecture that she is a part of. How about the COO that everyone “goes around” because he just doesn’t add any value to ongoing initiatives? Consider the state representative who can’t get any of his legislation passed in the House because he doesn’t know how to garner support from his colleagues.

A leader’s power is not in the structure – it’s in the interaction.

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Positive Power – Practiced by Great Leaders Everywhere!

What can you do as a leader to employ positive and effective power? Consider these actions:

  1. Shorten the distance between what you say and what you do.
  2. Use power as a multiplier in your organization, not as a personal kingdom-maker.
  3. Your own language can make you powerful – or not. Watch what you say and how you say it.
  4. Recognize and reward those who are practicing positive power.

1 – Shorten the distance between what you say and what you do.

Measure the distance between what you say and what you do. Look at the goals and objectives you have written down in strategy documents – how have you acted on them? Add a “1” if you’ve acted on them successfully – add a “0” if you haven’t. Tally up the number of “1”s and “0”s and calculate a percentage of “1”s to the total.

90% to 100%:     Congratulations – your distance between talk and walk is very short!

70% to 90%:        Work on it. Either your goal-setting is faulty or you are just not following through.

0% to 70%:          Really work on it – a lot. Your power factor is low. Seek coaching and mentorship. Understand that if you are just a pontificator, you have no real power.

2 – Use power as a multiplier in your organization, not as a personal kingdom-maker.

When I was in military service, I once had occasion to see two Generals having an argument with each in the headquarters. They were in each other’s faces, using their “outside” voices, and all this in front of others.

Each one was trying to exercise “power over” the other – through force, if you will – domination and intimidation. This only served to provide a bad example to us all and inhibit the number of powerful leaders in the organization.

Instead, we should help multiply leadership throughout the organization by demonstrating positive power even when we disagree. Remember: all personal “kingdoms” eventually disintegrate because they are held together by the wrong type of power. The more durable groups remain longer because their structures are made from long-lasting materials – positive power, trust, and respect.

Powerful leaders are those that set the example of civil and respectful relationships with everyone regardless of station and circumstance.

3 – Your own language can make you powerful – or not. Watch what you say and how you say it.

What kind of language are you using with everyone? Is it dominating, coercing, authoritative? Do you employ a lot of ideology and rhetoric? Rhetoric skews your message in some type of desired manner.

Politicians exercise power every day by employing rhetoric in effective ways. In other words, are you using language that is associated with old-school notions of “power over”?

Powerful leaders are those that set informal and lighthearted work environments by using their own voice and language in non-threatening and encouraging ways.

4 – Recognize and reward those who are practicing positive power.

When you observe someone practicing positive power, are you taking advantage of that action by recognizing it with some type of affirmation? If you acquiesce and let it pass, you will have missed a great opportunity for multiplication of positive power.

If you openly recognize that behavior, everyone will strive to emulate it. When they do, your whole department will experience a very beneficial effect of positive power. As an added benefit, you will have reduced fear in the workplace.

Powerful leaders set a “positive power” example and praise those who subscribe to this desirable behavior.

So how can you move toward a more positive notion of leadership and influence? What steps can you take today that will help you lead better tomorrow? What else can you add to this to help people understand the true force behind positivity and leadership? I would love to hear your thoughts!


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Dr. Robert Brescia
Dr. Robert Brescia is Executive Director at JBS Public Leadership Institute

He teaches young Texans about leadership, ethics, and public service
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook | Web | Book | Skype: robert.brescia

Image Sources: cgwa.com

L2L Contributing Author


  1. Peter McDougall on May 14, 2013 at 8:03 am

    Leadership ‘power’ is directly related to and derived from the trust and respect afforded the leader by his/her followers. As Professor John Adair (my leadership ‘guru’) advises: “You can be appointed a ruler, governor, commander or manager, but you are not a leader until your appointment has been ratified in the hearts and minds of those under you.”

    Peter McDougall

  2. Scott Crandall on May 14, 2013 at 8:19 am

    This is the best article (among many great ones) that I’ve read here all year. I loved your insight that power is in the interaction, not the structure. Wow!