Do you intend to be a major player as a senior executive leader? Then you’ll want to develop a real ability to influence people to act-not because they have to-but simply because they believe in you and are invested in your idea. You’ll want to master “the right use of power”.

There’s a certain degree of courage we need in order to face the fact that we, as successful high achievers, may not be accessing all of our power. And there’s a certain degree of humility needed to acknowledge that we may not be demonstrating the most effective use of our power.

Ineffective use of power, especially in the senior executive ranks, can seriously impede our influence. Unfortunately, mastery of how to use power doesn’t come automatically with the promotion to VP level.

I worked with one high-performing VP in the financial services industry when he recognized that he wasn’t moving ahead and was in danger of losing power in the organization. Although he had received a solid performance evaluation, he remained uncertain whether or not his boss truly valued him. So he asked his CEO for candid feedback outside of the regular review process.

He discovered (to his great surprise) that his CEO expected superior performers to challenge the CEO’s thinking more, and to tell him what he didn’t know. The CEO expected the VP to be more vocal in meetings, challenging his peers more often, and driving performance more assertively with his own team. By holding back from contributing at this level, the VP’s actions were interpreted by the CEO as a sign that he was not yet fully using his power; the VP was not a prime time player. He had decided not to promote the VP to the next level of VP until he demonstrated that he would be comfortable handling his power with any audience inside a bigger set of responsibilities.

As soon as the VP saw his blind spot, this high achiever also realized that playing “small” and under-using his power connected with an old habit of seeking approval. Approval-seeking is very common with high achievers. However, if you ask a high achiever if they seek approval, they usually say, “No, of course not.” However our behavior can indicate differently. When we play smaller than who we really are, we tend to try to compensate by working even harder to prove ourselves as leaders. This tends to result in seeking approval from others; which can in turn have us continue to play small to avoid the risk of losing that approval. The way out of this vicious cycle is to take a risk and fully step into our power.

With some very specific coaching on the right use of power, this VP shifted things quickly at the very next staff meeting. He presented his recommendations for a reorganization of his area to the leadership team. He held firm during a full debate of his proposal. And over the next few weeks, he had informal one-on-one conversations to gather the support of his peers. His recommendations have now been accepted. Turning up the volume on his power also resulted in an unanticipated offer to take on a bigger job in another part of the company. This high-potential leader has begun a positive power cycle that is moving him, and his organization, upwards.

Some of the senior leaders I coach in large organizations face a different dilemma around power at work. They have gotten to where they are because they’ve delivered. Throughout their careers, they have received massive amounts of approval for getting results. And they expect to continue to do so. However, sometime after they reach the senior executive ranks, they start noticing signs that not everyone is happy working with them. They find it more and more difficult to get everyone engaged and aligned to work on the same page. They hear offhand comments from peers and bosses about their style being abrupt and their attitude indifferent to other people’s concerns.

One senior VP in an energy company began working with me after overhearing comments like this because he was concerned he wouldn’t be considered for the next level of responsibility. Together, we’ve turned things around and created an easier way for him to lead. But it wasn’t always that way.

This high achiever had been promoted time and time again because he was highly focused on results. But his focus was exclusively on results. He micromanaged people, zeroing in on what they were doing, and criticizing them in meetings about how they were doing things. He spent very little time developing relationships. He was not considered abusive. However, without knowing it, he over-used his power and pushed people too hard to take action.

The right use of power isn’t about exerting force. It’s about using our power to create influence. Real power lies in applying our strength and energy to building relationships, discovering people’s motivations, helping them find a way to connect their passion with their work.

When this senior VP stopped focusing on what was being done “wrong” and started focusing on what was “right” in his one-on-one conversations, people started giving him compliments that they were learning from him. The real turning point came when he acknowledged that he really liked teaching people. Practicing the skill of “making people right”, he is now experiencing what it is to be a major player. And it’s a lot less stressful and a lot more fun than he had anticipated.

Let’s be clear: in and of itself, power is neither good nor bad. Power is our inner strength, the strength we can access and apply effectively-or ineffectively-to what we care about.

Self-confident high performers naturally demonstrate a balanced use of power. They neither under-use nor over-use their power. They overcome any lingering self-criticisms and focus on their purpose, rather than on seeking outside approval. They have faith in themselves, and they embrace their vulnerability. They step up to challenges, and they know how to handle self-doubt (see my article on The Silent Self-Doubt of Powerful Performers). They delegate to others in a way that allows others to use their power.

When senior leaders wonder about whether they’re using their power well, I invite them to explore the following questions:

  1. In this situation, am I using my power in a way that totally aligns with my purpose and values AND also creates the result I intended?
  2. Am I using my power to make big enough requests of people so that we execute our plans effectively?
  3. Am I fully engaging my power by becoming a real student of power, and politics? Am I seeing that my power includes using my talent, abilities, energy, attention, and voice in a way that creates my maximum contribution?

Just as we can overcome our silent self-doubts, we can also learn how to embrace our power, become comfortable with it, and develop strong connections with people at the same time. We can learn how to effectively leverage our power in one-on-one conversations and in team meetings-fully balancing the drive to achieve the goal with consideration for others.

We can master the right use of our power-instead of losing it. And when we do, everybody wins.