Expert Commentary

Empowerment—The Journey Beyond Accomplishment and Title

In business and in life, power gets a lot of attention and focus. Everything you want for your business, relationships, and life seems to be attainable through power—and indeed, it is. Yet too often, power is misunderstood.


Leadership at All Levels
October 2020

Power is not loud. Power does not come from a title, a role, an award, or a bonus. Power isn't created through force. Real power is much quieter—and it comes from within. In fact, power worth having is cultivated by developing the strengths you already possess and learning how to amplify them to your advantage.

One-Word Test

About 10 years ago, I devised what I like to call the "One-Word Test" to better understand my own traits and how I was being perceived by those around me. I asked friends and colleagues individually what one word they felt best described me. After polling 20 or so people, none of whom knew the others' answers, and I was astonished to hear that 9 of the 20 responses were identical. They said I was "intense."

One definition of intense is "extreme force, degree, or strength; having or showing strong feelings or opinions; extremely earnest or serious." It gave me quite a bit to think about that this is how I am perceived by the people in my life.

If that weren't shocking enough, I looked up the synonyms of "intense," which include almighty, blistering, deep, dreadful, excruciating, explosive, exquisite, fearful, fearsome, fierce, frightful, furious, ghastly, hard, heavy, hellacious, keen, profound, terrible, vehement, vicious, and violent. That in and of itself is intense to hear!

After 10 years, I still very often get that same word when I ask. My intensity hasn't changed because it's part of who I am. What has changed, however, is how I harness it and use it. I have learned how to balance my intensity and use it as my superpower in some situations and tuck it away in others.

I could have looked upon "intense" as a negative, harsh thing that I had to change about myself. Instead, I decided to develop it as one of my strengths. In fact, everyone can use their inherent traits as their own personal power, leveraging them to their advantage.

About a year ago, I polled another group of colleagues for a reprise of the One-Word Test, and I was surprised and slightly disheartened to hear the word "audacious" from a business friend I respected and admired. Again, back to the dictionary I went and found that one definition of "audacious" was "showing impudent lack of respect. Insolent, discourteous, insubordinate, ill-mannered, and defiant." Almost 10 years have passed and despite all my efforts to soften my approach, I went from "intense" to "audacious"? I knew there was a lesson here for me somewhere.

Reading further, the second definition (which I learned later was the one she meant) was "showing a willingness to take surprisingly bold risks. Bold, daring, fearless, brave, and courageous."

The important thing is to willingly listen open-mindedly to the impression you make on others, and of course, try not to jump to conclusions. The journey of self-discovery takes focused insight, humility, and self-reflection, but I promise you that it's worth the trip.

Finding Personal Power

So, where do you start? Let's begin by identifying the qualities that you already possess and cultivating them into assets that you can leverage to impact the world around you. Using your superpowers for good rather than evil, one may say. Such impact and influence give you power, and the cycle repeats itself as your power is strengthened and refined.

Fortunately, the tools you need for personal power are already in you—if you are willing to ask the hard questions, hear all manners of answers, and find the reward in all of it. Particularly, when the words to describe you sound negative, there's always something in there to learn from and grow. Remember, growth hardly ever happens without adversity—it's through the struggle that we triumphantly emerge.

I would encourage everyone to experiment with the One-Word Test as the first step toward your journey to discover your personal power. Then consider these other tips and tricks as you hone your newly found superpower.

Position Your Posture

How you carry yourself matters. You will be received and perceived by the way you present yourself to the world. How you carry yourself creates a mirror reflecting who you are inside and the respect you have for yourself. Others mirror that respect, and it starts with you. Stand tall and emulate how you want to be seen.

Watch Your Language

Words matter. The things you say and how you say them sets the tone for the value of what you're communicating, which (like your posture) becomes a mirror for how others will regard you. When you begin a sentence by negating yourself (e.g., "This might be a stupid idea but …"), you invite others to discount you as well. So, avoid filler and disclaimer phrases in your speaking and you will make a strong point when you speak.

Taking it one step further, there's no need to apologize for your thoughts before you present them—that sends the message that you don't put stock in what you have to say. Unless you're actually apologizing for something, which can be very meaningful when done correctly, everything you say after "I'm sorry …" gets tossed in the pile of things that don't matter.

Finally, if you don't want to be interrupted, make sure to have a finality to your thought. When your sentences trail off into mumble-land, the listener is unsure if you're finished and may inadvertently interrupt you, oftentimes dulling any good point you've just made by this awkward interaction. When you're done speaking, be done and look done.

Power over Power

Have power over your power. How you position that strength that you just honed—how you use it and when—makes or breaks your effectiveness. Being "intense" is great when you're on Survivor but not so great on neighborhood game night. Learn the nuances of when and where to use your power strategically.

Strengthen Those Strengths

Too often, we're advised that the only path to growth is strengthening our weaknesses. However, when you focus on your weaknesses, you are already starting out feeling inferior, inadequate, and defeated.

Instead, you should be starting from a position of strength. When you focus on your strengths, you feel empowered, motivated, and maybe even inspired. Getting better at something you're already good at is easier. You are motivated. You become confident. You feel … powerful.

Empower Others

Pay it forward. Power is not just about you. In fact, it's hardly about you. Power is something passed back and forth between people every day. You can give to others by being authentic and genuine about your interactions with them, helping propel them on their own journey to personal power discovery. For example, try being specific about your feedback to others. Saying, "What I loved best about your presentation was that joke you made in the middle—it really lightened the mood and made your point at the same time" is a much more meaningful and useful piece of feedback than "Great job." Try it on yourself some time.

An example of empowerment I like to relay is a time when I flipped the positioning to give the other person the power in a meeting. For many years, I have conducted alumni interviews for my graduate school. One year, instead of meeting in a local coffee shop, I met them in an office, where I sat behind the desk and they had to sit in the small, awkward guest chair in front of me. I noticed the students were nervous and shy, and I wasn't getting the same authenticity and confidence that I did when no one had the power seat at the coffee house interviews.

I decided to change positions. I sat in the little chair, and they sat behind the big fancy desk. I still asked the questions, but they felt more empowered because of where they sat. It made them feel less interrogated, and I was able to see more of their personalities and strengths and give a more accurate review to the school. Empowering others brings us all up.

Your Power Journey

In the quest for success, too often, we overlook the personal power that each of us has inside. Finding those strengths that are inherent in us is the first step to developing our personal power.

Just as rising tides lift all boats, understanding what personal power really is—and how to use it to benefit ourselves and those around us—can help us meet our full potential and help us help others see and reach their own potential. Doing so can help us improve our careers, our businesses, and our lives.

I invite you to go on your own personal power journey and see where it leads you. And I'd like you to be audacious about it.


Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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