The rhinoceros in the room

close-up of a rhinoceros head

The concept of ‘Personal Power vs. Positional Power’ first came to my attention in a leadership workshop (run by a previous employer).

Positional power (as the name suggests) comes from our position in life relative to other people. In a work setting it’s the thing that could be used by one person to get another to do something ‘just because’ they’re the boss1. I’ve also heard the word ‘authority’ used to describe this kind of power.

Personal power was said to be the trickier one to gain and use wisely, and was all about one person’s ability to persuade or influence another.

The main thrust of the workshop discussion seemed to be that (personal) power should be the preferred tool to use in relationships… but that it was OK to use authority if all else failed; if you really had no other choice.

Power and authority have become unpopular concepts in recent years – doubtless because we see so many examples of it being misused (deliberately or carelessly). People tend to give (personal) power less of a bad press (as books like ‘How To Win Friends And Influence People’ attest). This seems a little unfair because, as with all things, we have a responsibility to use what we have wisely; and that’s as true of (personal) power and authority as it is of a chainsaw, or a car. Used appropriately they are all useful and powerful tools; used carelessly they are likely to seriously hurt someone – even the operator. When authority or (personal) power is misused people end up feeling taken advantage of, misused and even bullied.

The problem is that where authority in any community has been given to someone, it has been given for a reason. If it is exercised in a way that disempowers others or not exercised at all that creates a state of uncertainty in the community and people don’t like the feeling of insecurity that results. In time other people will seek to deal with their insecurity by removing the uncertainty and, since they don’t have authority, they will seek to exercise what they think do have – their (personal) power – to resolve the situation. The more insecure they feel, the harder they will try to influence others.

The challenge for us, when we’re in that situation, is to recognise where the true authority lies – as this wonderful quote from G.K. Chesterton highlights,

“If a rhinoceros were to enter this restaurant now, there is no denying he would have great power here. But I should be the first to rise and assure him that he had no authority whatever.”

Of course, if you are in a restaurant with a rampaging rhinoceros, the best way to avoid being hurt in the short-term is to stay out of it’s way …and encourage others to do the same!
I guess the same advice applies if your rhinoceros is someone exercising (personal) power inappropriately …but this is definitely something I’m exploring, pondering, learning and reflecting on – so I’ll probably have more to say about this in a future post (and reserve the right to completely contradict everything I’ve said so far!).

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  1. I remember working for a manager who was very comfortable exercising his positional power… he wasn’t big on explaining things and would therfore quickly resort to saying, “Just  expletive deleted   do it!”