People imagine those with power in many different ways, but at its core power relates to influencing people and having an impact. Is power important? And if so, how does one get it?

In McClelland and Burnham’s Harvard Business Review classic article, “Power Is The Great Motivator”, they contend that the most effective managers are motivated by a high need for power. They note this should be tempered though by ensuring it is disciplined so that these energies are directed towards the benefit of an organization and not for self-aggrandizement. In addition, that the need for power ought to be greater than his or her need to be liked. They argue that managers who actively seek power not only get the most done but also develop the best teams and organizational vision. Power is essentially part of leadership.

So, let’s say we accept power as an important part of leadership and high performance, the next question is how do we obtain it? One of the most authoritative books on the subject is Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book, POWER. Pfeffer warns, “obtaining and holding on to power can be hard work. You need to be thoughtful and strategic, resilient, alert, willing to fight when necessary… the world is sometimes not a very nice or fair place.”

Three things that help in gaining power and are considered by Pfeffer in his book are personal qualities, standing out, and building efficient and effective social networks. In personal qualities, Pfeffer lists seven traits that help build power, which are ambition, energy, focus, self-knowledge, confidence, empathy with others and the capacity to tolerate conflict. Standing out is also part of the equation as for someone to promote or notice you, you have to first have your head above the crowd. This might mean breaking some of the cultural norms in an organization. Building efficient and effective social networks, or social capital, is also key and often overlooked by many. Networking brings you into contact with more people, so when they are making decisions (e.g. promoting, hiring etc), they will remember you. In other words, you can make opportunities through your social capital.

Pfeffer further warns that there are three obstacles to getting power…. the belief the world is a just place (if you believe this, you won’t learn from situations or be proactive in building a power base), blindly following leadership literature (many successful executives don’t tell you the power plays and behind-the-scenes deals they make) and yourself (our belief or need for a positive self-image to others may stop us from making the right choices).

Admittedly the word power has many negative connotations. Think of the words of Lord Acton, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” However, from a strict definition of influencing people and making an impact, it is neither negative or positive… but what you do with it. Instead, think about what changes and impact you can potentially make and where you would be without any influence.

It is not just about having power, but once you have the power, how is it used for the common good of the organization, the team and for building social capital. Knowing how to do this and practicing it requires skills, practice, reflection and honest feedback through many experiences. Balancing and using power also requires building a repertoire of soft or social skills.

Understanding and practicing soft skills is just as important as the so-called hard skills of finance, accounting, economics, etc. Those who study a VIT MBA have many opportunities to learn both types of skills and will also have the opportunities to practice them.

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