The National Portrait Gallery produces a lovely set of playing cards, featuring famous faces. The aces are Diana, Princess of Wales, Prince Charles, Margaret Thatcher, and Winston Churchill. If I were to ask you to rank them in order of who has the most power, we would be at it for hours. Mainly, we would be arguing about what power is, in order to determine a ranking. Is Charles the most powerful, because he alone remains alive and will one day be King? When history decides, will Churchill still reign supreme as the UK’s most important leader of the last century, or will Thatcher steal that crown, for her role in normalising neo-classical economics? Will the musicals of the future be written not about Evita but about Diana? What is power, anyway?
There is a huge literature on power in the fields of sociology, psychology, and political theory. Practically speaking, the models of power that are the most useful are those that tell you how to get more of it. So I like the classic model established by John RP French and Bertram Raven in 1959, as embroidered over the years by successive Ashridge faculty. It may not be the most accurate or nuanced account of power, but it is the most useful I have found.
My version of the model establishes three sets of power bases: role power, convening power, and personal power.
Role power, often called legitimate or position power, is about your role or job title. And this job gives you two levers, the power to reward, and the power to coerce. This power includes your ability to deploy resources, and attaches to you while you occupy the role. But it is a property of the job, so it stays with it if you move on. This is why so many leaders who used to rely on their official position to make them feel powerful struggle in retirement, and decorate the boards of charities to recover a semblance of this lost power.
Convening power, for me, is your ability to borrow power, typically from what you know (information), and who you know (networks). In some models, this is called your Political power. Thanks to the internet, whole new industries have now emerged, to empower us through Google and other search engines; Wikipedia and websites; and the networks created by social media.
The third power base is your personal power, the only one of the three that is both owned and immediate, because it is yours to use now, and yours to keep forever. This power comprises your personality and your expertise, both again susceptible to improvement to help you empower yourself.
Like a battery, power is latent, and lies passive until it is switched on. Influence is power applied, power deployed, power delivered, so influence is most often about relative power. Thinking about a situation in which you wish you had more influence, where is the imbalance in power? How could you make yourself feel more powerful in this situation? Using French and Raven’s categories, map the other party’s imagined power against yours. Where are there imbalances? Is there anything inherent in your role that allows you to offer rewards or threaten coercion? What is in it for them, or is there a favour they owe you? Could you use your network or the internet to find out more about the person you want to influence? Is there someone in your network that they always listen to, who you could send on your behalf? Or is there information you could get for them that they would welcome? Could you use your personality more skilfully with them? How could you apply or improve your expertise more powerfully in this situation?
As a quick tip for a power-boost, you might consider power-priming. Research carried out by Lammers and Galinsky suggests that before an interview or important meeting, you will come across as more persuasive if you have recalled immediately beforehand a time when you have felt powerful. So when you are waiting in the lobby, type yourself an email or text about all the times in your life when you have been absolutely fabulous. Or at least call these occasions to mind as you travel up in the lift.
The Clore Fellows asked me a good question about power. Where is money in my model? I think money is probably best understood as an enabler of most of these power bases, but is most accurately a proxy for role power. If you have money, like being a boss, it gives you power to reward and coerce. You can literally buy power. But beware, abuse of power by the rich often shows up as a weakening of their personality power – our libraries are full of cautionary tales about the lonely rich, whose money gives them the power to do everything except be sure they are genuinely loved for who they really are.
Power has a bad reputation, and we often feel uncomfortable talking about it. But power is only as positive or negative as the use to which you put it. You are already far more powerful than you think you are. So use your power well, and it will bless you.