This post was published last week on my LinkedIn page.
I’ve been fortunate to have some amazing teachers throughout my life. But there have also been a few doozies.
My 9th grade history teacher, Mr. Woodward, for instance, was renowned for his obsession with seating posture. He made his students face front, feet on the floor, hands on our desks, books open, reading silently for 40 minutes every day. He was without a doubt the worst teacher I ever had. He spent the entire course focusing on how we were sitting and none of it teaching history.
I contrast him to Mrs. Baldini, my 11th grade political science teacher. She was also renowned—but for another reason: her incredibly high standards. Unlike other teachers, she didn’t spend time managing postures or classroom dynamics. She didn’t have to. No one ever dared act up in her classroom.
Apart from what I learned (or didn’t, in Mr. Woodward’s case) in their classes, these teachers taught me a valuable life lesson, though I couldn’t articulate it at the time. It was a lesson about legitimacy.
Mr. Woodward found his sense of authority in his position, while Mrs. Baldini relied on her own passion and knowledge. They had the same positional power—the same role of teacher standing in front of a class. But Mr. Woodward had less legitimacy in our eyes as students, because his power was “outsourced”: it rested on our discipline and compliance.
Mrs. Baldini’s power, on the other hand, was “insourced”: it flowed from her knowledge and enthusiasm for the topic. It was something she felt, and it didn’t depend on our ratification or behavior. When she entered the room, we could sense her power rested on things she controlled, and not on controlling us. She knew her subject matter, and it didn’t matter whether we thought so.
Just as energy derives from many sources (oil, gas, solar generation, coal, nuclear fission) so too does human power. Some sources are personal and internal, while others are social and external. Social, that is, outsourced power extracts its validity from other people. It’s only valid when others legitimize it.
Mr. Woodward entangled us in his pursuit of legitimacy. His sense of power depended on what we did, and not what he felt about himself.
Human beings can sense when someone’s self-esteem depends on their social role. We get embroiled in propping up that person’s status, feeling the pressure to keep our mouths shut and always say “yes,” and likely harboring bitterness. It makes power relations messy and complicated, and it’s all too common. In my career as a facilitator, psychologist, and coach, I’ve worked with numerous clients who have had to contend with insecure and jealous bosses, or threatened supervisors.
When a boss’s ego is fragile, a teacher feels insecure, or a parent needs approval from her children, it creates resentment that eventually undermines authority—or worse. Needing others to prop up our status means that we don’t help the people around us grow and develop. We don’t see our job as helping them advance. Instead, when our power is outsourced, we extract it from the admiration, obedience, or compliance of those around us, keeping them down.
Distressingly, outsourced power is addictive. It breeds a dependency. The more you need people to verify your sense of power, the more you have to. Why? Lacking a stable sense of self—an inner voice within that says you’re “good enough”—you continually pressure the world around you to give you rank.
While social power hinges on the external, personal power is utterly self-sourced. Personal power’s greatest value is that it doesn’t depend on others for validity.
Mrs. Baldini had it. She relied on her knowledge, personality, life experience, ability to get along with people, and social skills. Teachers like her can tolerate challenging questions or help students who have trouble following, without perceiving these things as threats. Bosses whose sense of power comes from within can differentiate their own self-interests from the needs of their subordinates. Doctors with highly developed personal power benefit their patients by encouraging them to inform themselves, ask questions, and seek second opinions.
Personal power doesn’t put pressure on those around you. The more powerful you feel internally, the less you rely on your position to feel powerful, and the more legitimacy you have. Legitimacy is granted by followers who genuinely respect their leader’s power. It flows freely from the heart.
Check on the source and legitimacy of your power. Ask yourself, how much do you rely on others’ compliance to prop it up?