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Power: A Balancing Act

It’s been said that absolute power “corrupts.” My experience has shown that it may not always be “power” that corrupts, but rather the misuse, abuse or inappropriate use of power or the “authority” that comes with power.

Over the years I’ve worked with numerous leaders in business and various government institutions, and, while there are some cases where leaders engaged in unethical or abusive behaviors, I’ve found that the majority of the leaders I’ve worked with possessed a genuine desire to work with and effectively manage and motivate the people on their teams. However, these same team members would express frustration and cite communications problems with these managers. Why such a disconnect?

Position Power vs. Personal Power


What Do We Mean by “Power?”

The early scene from the movie “The Devil Wears Prada” where Miranda arrives at the office comically addresses the issue of how the use of “power” can impact the entire culture of an organization. Everyone was “walking on eggshells” and attempting to avoid who would be the “target of her wrath” that morning. While this is a Hollywood movie, it does demonstrate how one person’s use of their “power” can impact an organization, whether they are male or female.

The first thing that needs to be explored is what is meant by “power” and authority. There are two types of power that is exercised in society, whether in the corporate world, government, academia or the family. They are: Position Power and Personal Power.

Position Power is bestowed by the institution. It is indicated by level, or title, i.e., president, vice president, director, manager, supervisor, police officer, professor, teacher, mother, etc. These titles command certain protocols and are supported by policies, sanctions and authority within the systems of the institution – whether it’s a large corporation, the military, government agency, educational institution or family.

Personal Power is given by others. It comes from within the individual; in the way he or she attempts to influence or persuade others to accomplish tasks and the respect he or she conveys towards other people. It’s based on an aura of “charisma,” their personality or the type of person they are; as well as their knowledge, experience and connections. We know what this is when we experience it in our interactions with other people, i.e., “that doctor has a nice ‘bedside manner,’” “that salesperson has a ‘bad attitude,’” etc.

One kind of power is not better than the other and everyone has both kinds of power. The challenge is that some people are more comfortable with one kind of power than the other. This is fine in situations where those behaviors are appropriate. It can create problems, however, when the situation calls for behaviors that are from the least-comfortable form of power; and that is where problems can arise.

For leaders and managers to be effective, they need to communicate effectively and clearly the work priorities to their team members and institute consequences if performance standards are not met in a manner that is appropriate to the organizational culture and policies.

For example, in a military environment, drill sergeants give “orders” based upon their position… They say “jump” and the team “jumps.” It’s very clear, necessary and appropriate for that culture and environment.

However, most organizations in the private sector have a more open and participative culture and managers need to learn the skills and behaviors that are appropriate in that environment.

The key is balance: Balancing position and personal power. It means drawing upon the appropriate “power” for the situation at hand and being able to recognize or “diagnose” the situation and which way is best to respond.

Mary Anne Kochut of Champions for Success is a seasoned corporate trainer, workshop presenter and business coach. She just released her first book, Power vs. Perception; Ten Characteristics of Self-Empowerment for Women. Visit:

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About Mary Anne Kochut

Mary Anne is an author, motivational speaker, coach, trainer and organization/management development professional who is skilled in group dynamics, consultation and facilitation. She specializes in the areas of leadership, communications and executive coaching, change management and career transition and has experience in the Financial Services, Telecommunications, public utilities, insurance, retail and healthcare industries, numerous government…