In a world where it seems like there is never enough time, it’s tempting to relegate things like self-observation to the back burner. After all, when there’s so much to be done, who has time for contemplation? Well, if you’re serious about doing something truly significant with your life, then I’d argue that you do.
Need a push in the right direction? Pick up a copy of Real Power: Stages of Personal Power in Organizations by Janet Hagberg (Sheffield, 2002). Now in its third edition, this is a thought-provoking and little-known title — one that I’ve recommended to hundreds of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances because it lays out such a compelling explanation of how people get stuck in positions of powerlessness and dissatisfaction, and how they can start moving toward more rewarding and evolved modes of empowerment.
In her book, Hagberg describes six stages of power:
Stage 1: Powerlessness — This is where we begin life as infants, and unfortunately, it’s also where a lot of us remain. Having no power of our own, we depend on others for what we need. In this stage, we may retreat into victimhood and complaint, or resort to conniving and manipulation to get what we want.
Stage 2: Power by Association — This is the stage where we tend to co-opt and reflect power based on who we know and who or what we have on our side. People in this stage are prone to name-dropping, aligning themselves with more powerful people or organizations, and making threats like, “My older brother is going to kick your butt.”
Stage 3: Power by Symbols — In this stage, we use awards, fancy cars, exclusive country club memberships, framed degrees and other trophies of prestige to demonstrate how much we know and how much we’ve accomplished. It’s important to us that others recognize our feats and acknowledge our successes.
Stage 4: Power by Reflection — This stage holds special importance, both because it is transformative in itself, and because it serves as a springboard to the last two stages of power, where most truly great things are accomplished. In this stage, we become skilled in the art of self-observation, more discerning about the real sources and best uses of our personal power. We become capable of wielding our intellect and integrity in the service of our values, and we have less need of approval and admiration from others. As we become more comfortable in our own skin, we feel more intrinsically motivated, less compelled to constantly “prove ourselves” by amassing symbols of power and success.
Stage 5: Power by Purpose — In this stage, informed by the wisdom gathered through the Power by Reflection, we feel called to action by causes greater than ourselves. Having put the worst of our personal insecurities behind us, we now long to do the right thing, to be of service to others and to make a difference in the world. We are less in the grip of our egos and more compelled to invest our energy in efforts we feel have real meaning.
Stage 6: Power by Wisdom — In this stage, which relatively few manage to reach, we experience the power that comes from a transcendent type of fulfillment, a mature, soul-and-spirit-level understanding of the proper uses of our will. At this stage, we no longer desire or go in search of additional power, and so we return, paradoxically, to a certain type of powerlessness — but this time with an enlightened perspective, deep compassion and the capacity to be a major force for positive change.
Once you understand the stages of power, it becomes quite easy to recognize the type of power that you and those around you are currently wielding, and what type of power you might focus on developing next. If you are reading this, chances are good that you are already engaging (or at least exploring) the power that comes from reflection, and if so, you’re in a great place. If you’re not there yet, you can choose to get there — by simply reflecting on what’s held you back, and what’s calling next.