Real Power? It Doesn’t Really Come From a Job Title

What is power?

One way Merriam Webster defines power is “the ability or right to control people or things.”

When applied to the workplace, I usually think of power as defined another way by Webster — the “ability to act or produce an effect.”

Without power, formal or informal, we can’t get things done. However, whether formal or informal, power has to be real to be useful.

Real power doesn’t come from a job title

In a recent newsletter, motivational speaker and author Glenn Shepard makes a distinction between real power and something else. Shepard’s message is more or less this:

Regardless of whatever big-time job you might have right now, if your power is derived solely from your job title, when you leave that job, none of that will mean a hill of beans to anyone.

Instead, you’ll find that people who were falling all over themselves to get your attention can’t even be bothered to return your phone calls. So, rather than relying on the type of power that’s derived through your connection with an organization, it’s better to seek after real power by connecting with people who have real power.

A message for every worker, everywhere

Shepard writes,

These are the ones whose power belongs to them, and not to a company they work for. Real power is not based on temporary status.”

He provides examples to make his case — including a (once upon a time) famous actor who wound up living in a homeless shelter after her television show was canceled. Shepard’s point? The studio and the network had the real power, not the actor.

Shepard targeted his message to those nearer to retirement age than not, but I think it’s a fine message for every worker, everywhere.

Another view of power

The corporate world feeds off power — Who has it? Who wants it? Who wields it responsibly? Who abuses it? Who misuses it?

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Nothing is more telling of a leader’s character than how he or she uses power.

Every employee has power, too — The power to decide how much or how little effort he’ll put into his work. The power to decide whether she’ll follow this one, obey that one, or believe this one.

It’s amazing, really, when you ponder how much real power we have considering how many of us are quick to dismiss it while seeking something far less real, such as the “power” conferred by a job title.

And that brings us back to Shepard, because quality connections are much better than temporal organizational “power.”

And by “quality” I don’t mean all your friends are VIPs (although they could be, as VIPs are people, too).

Transformative relationships

Mostly, however, I mean real (meaningful) relationships with real people with whom you share a common bond as well as genuine fondness and respect. These relationships are transformative and can be a significant force for good in organizations, as well as in one’s personal life.

No job title can do that.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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