How Power is Earned

By Scott Westerman

Power is difficult to achieve, easy to lose and must be re-earned every day.

“I hope our wisdom will grow with our power,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

We all tend to be in awe of the powerful. When we know that someone has power, we listen more carefully and are circumspect in how we answer. We respond more quickly to their requests and try to curry their favor because we believe that they can influence our destiny.

In some organizational cultures, titles are everything. Rank has its privileges, the saying goes, and many of us spend our careers chasing it.

Power is not taken. It is given.

Over the years, my teams have grown weary of my telling the tale of the Servant Leader.

Lao-Tzu defined the concept this way around 500 B.C.: “The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. Next comes one whom they love and praise. Next comes one whom they fear. Next comes one whom they despise and defy. When you are lacking in faith, Others will be unfaithful to you.

The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, all the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it.’”

In the gospels, Jesus is said to have told his followers, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant..”

The best leaders are servants first.

Robert Greenleaf is a personal hero of mine. He was an AT&T executive who studied servant leadership extensively. In his pamphlet, “The Servant as Leader” he writes, “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.”

“The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

Larry Spears, longtime head of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, identified ten characteristic of servant leaders in Greenleaf’s writings:

  • listening,
  • empathy,
  • healing,
  • awareness,
  • persuasion,
  • conceptualization,
  • foresight,
  • stewardship,
  • commitment to the growth of others,
  • and building community.

No matter what your title may be, it’s possible for you to exert your personal servant power to positively influence others. Help them solve their problems and they are more likely to help you solve yours.

First seek to serve, find out where it hurts and help make it better.

The old sales maxim goes: you must first build rapport before you can earn the right to ask for the order. Too many of us come into the room with our sales pitch already underway.

Seek first to understand what others need. Ask clarifying questions. Practice Greenleaf’s ten characteristics of servant leaders. And watch the magic happen.

And when the time comes where you are given a title that bestows power upon your shoulders, remember that you’re still a servant… you just have a bigger constituency who are depending on you.

Your greatest power is the power to serve others. Do it joyfully, patiently, tenaciously and with the understanding that all glory is fleeting.

And as you express your personal power in this pivotal time in our nation’s history, remember, too, JFK’s cautionary words.

“We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world – or to make it the last.”

Choose the former.