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Five Deadly Leadership Power Drains


Even the best leaders can lose their voltage. Here's how not to do it

For the past 20 years I have been studying power and influence among leaders globally. What makes some more powerful than others? How do leaders derive their power? And how, on the other hand, do they diminish it? I discovered that leaders have 11 specific sources of power available to them, some stemming from their position in a company and others from personal attributes and capabilities. I also learned that every one of those power sources could also turn into a power drain. In other words, leaders, like batteries, can lose their voltage and, with it, their ability to lead and influence others. Here are five leadership power sources—and how they can become power drains: 1. Knowledge power Your knowledge power represents your talents, skills, and abilities as well as your wisdom and accomplishments. It embodies what you know and what you can do. Leaders rated high in knowledge power are three times more influential than their lower-rated counterparts. How knowledge power drains happen: You resist saying, "I don't know" (when you don't). You have a know-it-all attitude. You fail to credit the real source of knowledge—and get caught. You lack basic knowledge about your direct reports' functional areas (to the point that you're unable to ask intelligent questions). 2. Expressiveness power Your expressiveness power is, in essence, your eloquence—your ability to communicate powerfully and poetically in speaking and writing. In its most dynamic form, the power of eloquence can increase a leaders' influence unlike any other power source. How expressiveness power drains happen: You talk too much (and listen too little). You use verbal tics ("um," for one). You are reticent and thus fail to engage and contribute. 3. Attraction power Your attraction power reflects your ability to draw people to you, to cause them to like you and prefer you to others. The attraction can be physical, but it may also come from warmth, wisdom, shared experiences, or common values. Globally, it is one of the most potent power sources, and high ratings here can more than triple a leader's power, influence, and overall effectiveness. How attraction power drains happen: You are aloof, arrogant, or self-absorbed. You are unkempt (or, even worse, have poor hygiene). You underdress or overdress. You tell off-color jokes or try for laughs at others' expense. You violate people's personal space or privacy. 4. Reputation power Your reputation power derives from how you are perceived in your various communities, from your company or business unit to society as a whole. You must passionately protect it. It also has a halo effect; the power of reputation enhances all of a leader's other power sources. How reputation power drains happen: You ignore, overlook, or misunderstand behavioral expectations or social norms in one or more of your communities. You commit a grievance but refuse to take responsibility for it. You fail to think about the consequences of your choices, decisions, and actions. 5. Willpower Your willpower is a meta-source of power, the desire to be powerful coupled with the courage to act. Walt Whitman called it "personal force"—the will to do something when others merely dream or talk about it. It is, in essence, the magic elixir that differentiates the world's most powerful leaders. How willpower drains happen: Leaders become afraid of moving forward; fear of failure is a huge willpower usurper. Many people long for something but decide not to pursue it because another contender appears bigger and stronger. Others don't meet with short-term success and give up. F. Scott Fitzgerald allegedly collected more than 200 rejection slips before selling his first story. Legend has it that he papered his bathroom walls with those rejection slips. But he had the willpower to continue. Many people don't have his resilience. Their willpower crumbles because of lack of affirmation. Power drain.

Terry R. Bacon, PhD, is a scholar in residence at the Korn/Ferry Institute and author of numerous books on leadership, management, and personal development. His new book is The Elements of Power: Lessons on Leadership and Influence (Amacom, 2011).

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