Personal Power: How to Make Your Mark (Without Selling Your Soul)

a woman is confident showing her personal power

Have you ever known someone who just exudes confidence?

The type of person you're happy to spend time with - they're grounded, happy, secure, and charismatic. They're magnetic without being overbearing. They're successful at work and seem to know everything there is to know in their area of expertise.

Listening to them speak, you feel that you'd happily follow them to the ends of the earth. And they might even leave you thinking "wow, I wish I could be like them!"

These people aren't superheroes, and weren't born with unnatural abilities to get everything right in life. They're regular people who've learned how to harness their 'personal power'.

Personal power comes into play when expertise meets charisma. While it might come naturally to a lucky few, it's actually something you can learn and cultivate throughout your personal and working life.

No matter what your background or personality type is, building personal power can give you some major advantages in all parts of life. Here's what you need to know.

Table of contents
What is personal power?
Personal power: the F4S approach
What is an example of personal power?
What are the two types of personal power?
How do you build personal power?

What is personal power?

Personal power is your ability to attract, influence and lead people in a positive way. It's a combination of your interpersonal skills and professional competence, and is the opposite of 'positional power' - that which comes through hierarchies, job titles and other bureaucratic power dynamics.

There's two ways of looking at personal power. The first is through its definition in the psychological sense.

Back in the 1950s, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven identified the five bases of power, divided into two types:

Positional power 

  • Legitimate power - that which comes from job titles or positions
  • Coercive power - using the threat of punishment or harm for influence
  • Reward power - being able to offer incentives for certain behavior

Personal power

  • Expert power - being seen as an expert in a certain field
  • Referent power - being adored or admired due to treating others well and being charismatic

So, personal power is the sum of those last two. It's about people liking you for being a great person, and respecting you for your accomplishments. It's not about prestige or domineering or relying on authority to get your way. Overall, it's a nicer kind of power that you shouldn't have many ethical reservations about acquiring.

Many people don't like the idea of power and associate it with negative concepts like inequality and exploitation. While these are possibilities in any group of people - remember the old phrase "absolute power corrupts absolutely" - it's certainly not an inevitability. Leadership is often necessary to steer a group towards a common purpose and avoid the agonizing back-and-forth of decision by committee. Power, in the right hands, is a part of a healthy and functioning community, company or nation.

To best lead other people, though, you need to be able to lead yourself.

The other dimension of personal power is therefore the 'self vs. others' angle. Essentially, personal power is rooted in the power you have over yourself, in contrast to other forms of power, which you wield over others.

Personal power is intrinsically tied to self-development, because it requires you to be educated and empathetic. Getting it means you have to have a decent level of self-awareness and emotional intelligence, as opposed to positional power, which really doesn't require you to share your expertise or be selfless in any way. You've also got to have an enthusiasm for achievement in order to get the results that people want to see.

So if you could sum up personal power, it'd be the ability to lead and influence people by being a competent, likeable, trustworthy and self-reliant person.

Personal power: the F4S approach

At Fingerprint for Success we have a unique viewpoint on personal power.

We see personal power as coming from a combination of three core personality traits: power, affiliation and achievement.

Power - or the need for power and control - is a motivation shared by many leaders and those who find themselves in positions of authority. This isn't necessarily a tyrannical attribute - it doesn't particularly mean you want to wield power at the expense of others. It's more of a desire for responsibility and wanting to lead others. You'll enjoy influencing their decisions with both your rhetoric and your actions. Taking charge comes naturally to you, and you're more likely to take the lead proactively in situations that require decision-making.

Affiliation is the motivation to build bonds with people. Also known as belongingness, it's the trait that makes you want to forge relationships and work closely with others. Connecting with fellow humans gives you energy and you'll naturally gravitate towards opportunities to do so. This means that trust is a really important part of your work and life; both earning it yourself and trusting in others. It's the foundation of the 'personal' part of personal power, and often correlates with a high degree of emotional intelligence.

Achievement is the motivation towards accomplishing milestones, results, objectives and awards. It means you want to hit those targets and be visible in doing so. While you probably enjoy the process of working towards it, hitting the finish line of your project is what really energizes you: that satisfying feeling of having been successful. It's not a selfish trait - this also means that you're motivated by the achievements of others around you, and you'll enjoy cheering them on and recognizing their accomplishments. This is a crucial part of your personal power: being around you means others feel lifted by your encouragement and energy.

While everyone has these attributes in different amounts, recognizing them and building them up can have a really positive impact on your personal power, wherever you're focused on wielding it.

You can find out which of these traits you're more dominant in through the Fingerprint for Success app. And with our personal power coaching, you can boost your own personal power in eight weeks, with just two short sessions per week.

What is an example of personal power?

Personal power manifests in various different ways. Here's some examples of how it might play out in the real world.

Example 1: 

Anna is a customer service representative in a call center. She's quiet and fairly introverted, but is really good at her job. Customers love her because she's a good listener and fun to talk to. Colleagues love her because she's quick to help them when things go wrong, and if she finds a useful way of doing things, she'll share it instead of keeping it secret. While she's not aggressive or competitive like some of her coworkers, Anna keeps a keen eye on her KPIs and enjoys the feeling of getting really high feedback scores.

Although she doesn't have an amazing resume or highly technical skills, Anna quickly gets promoted through the ranks to management because she's a joy to work with - she manages to win for herself and achieve things while lifting others up too, which is good for the team and the company as a whole. Growing in confidence throughout these experiences, Anna becomes more comfortable directing others and making big decisions as she’s given more and more responsibility. 

Example 2:

Jorge is a co-founder of a software company that provides analytics tech for the logistics industry. While his co-founder Maya is the more technically gifted partner, focusing on the development of their software, Jorge quickly found himself as the public face of the company due to his growing personal power.

Jorge managed to secure early-stage funding for the project from a local angel investor. He wasn't looking for it at the time, and didn't reach out, but his details were forwarded to the investor by a colleague from his previous workplace. This old coworker had seen how gifted Jorge was at marketing and relationship building, and made the introduction.

Jorge charmed the investor with Maya's help, making a technical presentation that demonstrated their expert capabilities in the field. But it was the fact that he was so likeable and easy to work with that sealed the deal. The investor knew that people with immense personal power like Jorge make for great entrepreneurs and marketers because they're skilled at getting others to believe in their mission - a crucial asset for any startup. The experience worked out well for Jorge; he secures favorable financial terms without giving up too much control of the company, because he’s confident that the ball is in his court.

What are the two types of personal power?

Let's look a little closer at the two types of personal power we identified above.

The first is expert power.

Having expert power in an organization, community or society means that you're perceived to have more knowledge and skills in a particular field than others. This means people trust you and can be influenced through that trust.

Usually, it's a good thing to have. Being regarded as an expert means people will come to you for help, listen to your advice, and regard your opinion in good stead. Your ideas will be seen as valuable rather than be dismissed, and decisions will be made based upon your recommendations, rather than requiring you to present evidence each time you speak.

In the workplace, this carries obvious advantages. With expert power, your opportunities open up significantly, and you'll be invited to teach and mentor people, represent your team or company in front of others, and take on more responsibility. This sort of personal power often translates into more authoritative power later down the line.

Remember - just being knowledgeable about something isn't enough. Expert power is about the perception that others have - they need to know (or at least believe) that you're competent enough to trust. They need to feel that your expertise is legitimate because you've done the time studying and practicing, and they can see the results. People might not ask to see your certificates and such, if you're confident enough talking the talk.

This can, of course, be used for nefarious reasons - think of how many cons have been run by charismatic shysters exploiting peoples' mistaken belief in their false expertise. Expert power can be built through dishonesty, but that's a dangerous game to play; trust can be built over decades but lost in a single day. Be careful.

The second type of personal power is referent power. This is your ability to influence people and earn trust through being likeable and caring. It's based on values like trust, honesty, and integrity.

Those that show traits of belongingness are likely to enjoy building up their referent power as they value the opinions of others and the advantages of having a thriving social circle.

There are a bunch of advantages to building referent power in particular. With referent power you're better poised to motivate others towards achieving a shared goal. You can reduce the stress that foments in high-pressure environments with your ability to be empathetic and caring. You can foster a more collaborative, productive environment by bringing people together who might not have naturally gravitated towards one another.

With referent power, you can become a locus of interpersonal connection, and people won't hesitate to recommend you to others as a supportive and likeable acquaintance. And if you do things right, the relationships you build will be long-lasting and secure.

How do you build personal power?

As we mentioned, it's not just an innate gift - personal power can be cultivated through deliberate actions. While it can take time to build significant influence, simply trying a different way of doing things for a while can really boost your confidence and your reputation in the organizations you're a part of.

Here are six strategies for building your personal power.

Show your work

If expert power is all about being perceived as an expert, you're going to have to get your work out there somehow. Whether that's sharing on social media, teaching people how to do things, or participating in discussions with other thought leaders, there are plenty of ways to showcase your know-how. Whether you're in the public eye or just looking to bump up your reputation in a community group, being visible is something you need to dedicate regular time and energy to if you want to be the first person someone thinks of when they're looking for someone who has the know-how.

Ask questions

People love talking about themselves. In fact, one of the best ways to encourage people to like you (thus building your referent power) is to get yourself out of the picture and let them talk about themselves. Being curious and asking open questions without judgement is a great way to help people open up to you. Try to dig a little deeper than surface stuff. Rather than just asking what someone did at the weekend, ask what they liked about it. Exchanging opinions is a great way to bond and open up interesting avenues of conversation.

Maintain a growth mindset

One of the most crucial parts of building your expert power is a lifelong commitment to continuous learning. You have to stay on top of your game if you want that expertise to stay relevant. Actually being an expert means going between learning and sharing your knowledge. If you neglect either one, it becomes harder for people to see you as the master of your domain.

Learning doesn't just involve studying; it involves doing. Get out there, participate in unfamiliar things, and be ready to fail. Experiment with different things and don't be afraid to get it wrong. Someone who tries, fails, learns, then tries again is much more admirable than someone who never tries in the first place.

Ask for help when necessary

Even the most accomplished, powerful people have to get help sometimes. So don't be afraid to lean on your colleagues and acquaintances when the time is right.

Showing a little vulnerability can actually help build trust. If people see that you have weaknesses, they'll know that you're human and aren't putting on some sort of 'superhuman' front by hiding all your flaws.

Not only will you not stress yourself out by trying to fix everything on your own, you'll open up the opportunity to learn from others - and maybe they can teach you a better way of doing things.

Focus on yourself rather than others

This might seem a little selfish. In fact, it is - but that's the point. Personal power isn't built by bringing others down or beating them in a competitive way. It comes from within. It's all about building up your own strength so that you can serve others better in the long run. 

This can mean strength in all kinds of disciplines: mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, financial, social, and so on. Making yourself stronger in any of these ways means that you're better positioned to help others. You'll be a better teammate, workmate, partner, employee, manager, and friend if you're secure and healthy in as many ways as possible. To be that person long-term, sometimes you've got to focus on yourself for a short while. If it's good for everyone around you, it's not truly selfish.

Have fun

Life is pretty absurd most of the time, and that's easy to forget when you're wrapped up in the rigidity of the modern workplace. While you don't need to start dressing outlandishly or acting like the class clown, a healthy disinclination to take things seriously all the time can have big benefits for your personal power.

Not only will it make you more agreeable and magnetic to those around you, having fun in your daily life makes you more productive. Always look on the bright side of life.

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