I was at the Denver airport, on a short layover with just enough time to grab a yogurt at the snack bar next to my gate.

I was in a rush, tired from having been up since 3 am, and feeling generally scratchy and uncomfortable from traveling all day, so I was a bit startled when the young man behind the counter greeted me with a very cheerful, “So how’s your day going?” “Pretty good,” I said, feeling somewhat humbled by his cheery mood and my curt one. And then, because I felt apologetic for not having been friendlier, I said, “As good as I can, consider I’m flying all day. I bet you see a lot of grumpy people like me, working here in the airport.” He smiled and said, “No. Not at all.” And then to my amazement, he said, “People who come to my counter are friendly. Because this is my counter, and whoever comes here, I make them feel happy. That’s what I do. This is my job.”

That little counter top, between gates B23 and B21, was his sphere of influence. He had a tiny position of influence, yet he brought to it incredible intention and personal power.

I write and teach a lot about the value of personal power to be effective, in particular, being effective in your positional power role.  Whether your domain is a snack counter or government agency, whether you’re asking for a raise or asking for sweeping social change, you need more than what your position or social status gives you. You need some kind of inner belief, grit, or what-have-you to earn respect, make the most out of the moment, motivate people, and make an impact.

But how do you develop that personal power? How did this young man come to have his personal power? Did he grow up learning it? Did he have to practice it, like a skill? Did he develop it over the course of his lifetime, through trials and tribulations that shaped him? Or did he cultivate it through steady and focused work on himself? Or maybe he was just that way, a unique mix of innate abilities, traits, and attitudes?

In my work, I’ve discovered an amazing thing about personal power: Any life experience, any personality trait can be a source of personal power; it depends on your ability to develop it and use it to your advantage.

In May I’m going to be in Zurich, and I’m looking forward to talking about power: the different kinds, the value of personal power, and how to develop it. Each of us is unique, and each of us has our own experience of developing personal power. But these are what I see as common practices for growing our personal power:

Get in front of your story.

A friend of mine uses this expression. I like it because it’s crucial that we become aware of the stories we tell ourselves. How we frame what happens to us has a profound and decisive influence on many things, from health and well-being, to our ability to bounce back from defeat.

They say experience is the best teacher, but it’s not really true. We don’t learn from experience unless we reflect on it. And more, what we learn depends on how we reflect. Reflection is an inner retelling, an unpacking and repacking of the experience. Sometimes, this inner retelling undermines our sense of efficacy, self-esteem and learning. We can tell ourselves a story that generates anxiety, self-doubt, or blame, or we can tell one that’s characterized by openness to discovery, positivity and a desire to learn.

What to do? We can’t do away with critics, and sometimes (often, even) they have a good point. And we can’t change what happens to us. But we can, as the cliché goes, choose how we respond and relate to it. Here I fully agree with one of my favorite psychologists, William James, who said, The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes. 

Tame The Tiger

Emotions are a provocative topic! They empower us, but can also derail us. When we’re aware of our feelings, they’re useful guiding allies, but when they have us by the tail, we’re triggered, and then fall into what I call a “low rank state.” A low rank state is one in which we feel victimized, powerless, or at the mercy of other people and events. Knowing your triggers and having methods for rolling with the ups and downs of daily life, with other people’s demands, criticisms, moods, and with your own inner states is critical to personal power. This ability is both a manifestation of personal power, and a skill that can be developed, that grows your personal power. We can’t be expected to have equanimity at every moment; that’s not possible. But tracking our triggers and complexes, learning how to bounce back and regain composure, and being able to laugh at ourselves help us grow personal power

Love Your Low Rank

A lot of people are mistrustful of authority and power, with good reason. But I always say, hating power is the worst preparation for being in a position of influence or authority. Often our response to having low rank, or being disempowered is to chafe against our low rank position, and strive to gain more rank, often times by knocking down those who put us there. That’s important, but not the whole story. Low rank experiences are inevitable and important. There is value and benefit at every level in an organization, not just the top. Our low rank selves are sources of insight. If we just try to get out and up, we leave behind valuable things: insight, empathy, and often times, resilience. Wisdom comes from seeing the world through the lens of many different rank perspectives, low and high. In the absence of social advantage, we develop inner resources. In the absence of positive messages about ourselves, we can develop a rock-solid sense of self-esteem. This is personal power, benefits that no one can ever take from you

Let Your Freak Flag Fly

Whenever we try to fit in or hide what we think is uncool, we become vulnerable. Our personal power is there because of—not in spite of—our peculiarities. When we try to fit in and be accepted, we are dependent on others’ perceptions and expectations. But when we have nothing to lose—when we embrace our quirks and transform them into superpowers—we become amazing.

The problem is, however, that these traits are also, often, what we see as the unlovable parts of ourselves. The biggest obstacle to developing personal power is self-marginalization. It’s crucial that you embrace who you are, not just those traits you like (or others like), but the ones that are non-traditional, that make you feel uncomfortable. Because if you’re not comfortable with yourself, no one else will be either. The first task in cultivating your traits is to ask yourself, what hand was I dealt? The better we are at appreciating the hand we’re dealt, our special personality, with all its quirks, foibles, limitations, powers, and potentials, the more solid we are, and the less likely we are to be seeking something outside of ourselves

Keep your eyes on the final hour 

But all of the above alone wouldn’t work without this one: a deep sense of purpose or connection to something larger than yourself. Our little puny selves, acting just for the moment, just for immediate gain, don’t bring out the best in ourselves. Acting for the greater good also makes us greater. Personal power is about us personally, but the effectiveness of personal power lies in its ability to touch others.

I talk about this as “the final hour,” or sometimes as “your future self” (here and here) because your older and wiser self, your self closer to death is often more able to connect to purpose and to a larger calling. Some people develop this from deeply held values, from their connection to humanity, nature, their community, their ancestors, or to God, however they define that. Regardless of where and how we hold that higher purpose, it directs the force of power towards a common and greater good.

What would you add? What have you found grows and nurtures your sense of personal power?

I hope to see you in Zurich in May!

I’ll be presenting at a conference on Worldwork: Keys to Successful Conflict Resolution, Friday, May 8, and following that, offering my workshop, The Leader Lab, May 9-10.