In good times, power can feel like a bit of a dirty word. We associate it with pushing people around, exercising unearned privileges, or just not being very nice. Because of this, lots of us struggle to own our power.
Then a crisis comes along and reminds us of the important, positive role power plays. When a virus sweeps the globe, a company faces financial ruin, or a neighborhood (or country) has to pull together to overcome a challenge, the value of a competent, caring, and powerful leader to get everyone working together is obvious.
How do you become one if your uncertainties, compunctions, or personal style makes wielding power uncomfortable? In a great interview with Insights by Stanford Business, Deborah Gruenfeld, a psychologist at Stanford and author of the new book Acting With Power offered a simple but essential tip.
Get over yourself by thinking like an actor
Power, Gruenfeld points out, isn't about how you feel. It's about how other people feel about you. Which is why when you want to come across as powerful, the key is to focus not on you, but on others.
This is a technique actors use to beat their nerves and build charisma. "They focus very intentionally on the other person in the scene, not on the audience. There are many things we can't control in life, but one we can, with discipline and practice, is where our attention goes," Gruenfeld says. This trick works for leaders too.
When you want to maximize your power, move your attention off yourself and onto others. "Keep your focus on what you are trying to accomplish, and define it in terms of the other person. Do you want the person to trust your expertise and authority? Do you want the person to feel understood? To do what you say without further discussion?" she instructs.
It's OK to feel inauthentic
Will that sometimes mean you have to act in ways that feel weird and inauthentic? Maybe, but that doesn't mean you're being dishonest or manipulative. It means you're playing your part for the benefit of your audience, just like an actor.
"We place a lot of value on the idea of being ourselves. But the ability to see ourselves through others' eyes is a very important skill. It's actually a milestone of developmental maturity," Gruenfled reminds those who are uncomfortable with playing to expectations. "In all kinds of groups, individuals who behave in ways that are expected and socially desirable are making the choice to place group goals ahead of individual goals."
"If you are the boss, the parent, the team leader, and even if you aren't completely secure in those roles, you have to play your part. You want to do whatever it takes to make others feel secure. Sometimes this requires being tougher, less tolerant, less friendly than normal -- to let people know, 'I've got this.' And sometimes it means backing off, slowing down, showing others respect by really listening," she adds.
What does this add up to? If you're facing difficult times and need to overcome discomfort and doubt to lead with power, the first step is getting over yourself. Only by focusing on others and their needs, feelings, and expectations will you be able to become the powerful leader you need to be to weather a crisis.