One day, toe-to-toe with the CEO in front of the board of directors, I told him that the statement he’d just made was flat-out wrong. I was a shy 28-year-old, serving as the company’s director of corporate sustainability, and in that company culture, no one questioned the CEO.

That day, my passion for environmental sustainability fueled my personal power enough to face off against the CEO. Simply put, I felt more powerful than my title implied. But what happens in the reverse situation, when a leader feels less powerful than implied by their place in the organizational hierarchy? In this blog, let’s explore a key leadership skill: how to shift your sense of power from low to high, so you can be your best in the situations you face.

For any leader, it’s normal to fear making the wrong decisions, worry how others perceive you, and question your abilities to handle the circumstances that arise. Those concerns come with the job.

The problem is that a leader who feels off balance – in the moment or chronically – is a leader who is operating from the survival-driven part of their brain, the limbic system. In that state, a person is more likely to feel defensive, distrustful, and even aggressive. They may cease to listen, react poorly to feedback, make rash demands, yell or slam doors, waffle in making decisions, or attack others. These dysfunctional behaviors wreak havoc on the people around the leader, and the results can be ruinous for relationships, team performance, and the leader’s career.

What is the key to interrupting this chain reaction? It’s knowing how to lift yourself from a limbic, low-power state to a high-power feeling state. If you can do that, then patience, creativity, curiosity, and the other reasoning capabilities of your prefrontal cortex come flooding back.

Here are four of the many ways to make the shift, either before, during, or after you experience a low-power feeling state:

  1. Recognize your triggers. Triggers are emotional stimuli that send us quickly into a low-power state. Learning to manage your triggers is one of the most effective ways to regain your sense of power. For example, some people are triggered by disapproval, others by loud voices, backbiting, or chaotic work environments. For many people, their social history creates triggers related to racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. If you know your triggers, you can plan ahead. For instance, if a team member’s disdainful remarks set you off in meetings, you can practice ahead of time what options you have for staying calm and responding effectively.
  2. Calm your body. Low- and high-power feeling states are always accompanied by signals in the body: how deeply or shallowly you breathe, ease or tension in your muscles, narrow or expanded field of vision, etc. Restore the body to calm, and a less-triggered brain and feeling state will follow. To recover from a triggered state, try breathing slowly and deeply, sensing your feet firmly on the ground, removing yourself from the situation, or doing a strenuous activity like jumping jacks. Counting to fifty and drinking cool water are also well-known calming techniques.
  3. Tap into your unique sources of power. Everyone has superpowers. Maybe you have a knack for seeing the big picture when everyone else is getting lost in the weeds, or you know just what to say to inspire a colleague to do their best. Because your superpowers are often invisible to yourself, ask family, friends, and colleagues what they find awesome, amazing, (or intimidating!) about you. Then, when you feel in a low-power state, lean into them to restore your balance. For example, one leader I know taps into their bedrock-like sense of resilience to stay calm in tense situations with staff or demanding bosses.
  4. Learn from low-power moments. Low-power situations are vulnerable moments; they expose our weaknesses and human flaws. That can be difficult to bear, but the silver lining is what you learn from it. For one leader I’ve coached, her most humiliating early-career moment was a stumbling, sweating presentation to a client. Mortified by the experience, she enrolled in a public speaking class, where she became so adept that public speaking is now a source of joy. Other ways to benefit from low-power moments include accepting what happened, capturing lessons-learned, and making amends to others if needed.

Use this idea:

The methods described above are simple, but not necessarily easy. We are human! Cultivating resilience in low power states is just one of the topics I discuss with leaders, often in association with the results of their Diamond Power Intelligence® (DPI) assessment. In this 360-degree leadership assessment, your selected bosses, peers, direct reports, and stakeholders rate your behaviors in seven key areas related to your use of power. The results provide the candid (and rare) feedback you need to radically improve your leadership effectiveness. If you’d like to learn more, please contact me.

Three Questions for You and Your Teams

  1. What internal states of mind or external conditions give you the feeling of being most powerful? least powerful?
  2. Think of a time when you acted from a state of low power. What were your behaviors when in this state? How would you rather behave in a similar situation in the future?
  3. What are your tried-and-true methods to recover your sense of power in a challenging moment (or right after)?


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