What Is Personal Power? How You Can Exert Influence and Why You Should

By Kimberly Manns

I am jealous of Lebron James. Even though his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, did not win the recent NBA championship, he is still called the greatest basketball player of all time and he is reportedly worth $400 million. But that is not why I envy him.

I am jealous because when he does something simple like wear a short suit, (that really has nothing to do with basketball), thousands are instantly concerned about his $46,000 look. He can also take on the President of the United States by declining an invitation to the White House before invited.

James is in a position of such power and influence that he has the license to impact subjects as light as fashion and as grave as police brutality.

Many may say that the pinnacle of life is when you reach a point of personal power that you have the ability to be your authentic self and that expression impacts change.

According to researchers from Tel Aviv University and elsewhere, “because the powerful can navigate their lives in congruence with their internal desires and inclinations, they feel more authentic and, consequently, achieve greater social well-being than the powerless do.”

Throughout history, philosophers such as Plato, playwrights such as William Shakespeare, athletes such as Muhammad Ali, activists like Mother Teresa and politicians such as John F. Kennedy have shared the common thread of maintaining the personal power to shape society and inspire change. And this was before social media provided the platform to magnify personal influence.

Today popular culture is witness to influencers who are crossing boundaries in music, social justice and religion in order to make changes.

Beyonce recently became the first black woman to perform at Coachella. She marked this milestone by celebrating black culture in front of a traditionally white audience. When her mom, Tina Knowles, expressed concern about this choice she reportedly responded, “I have worked very hard to get to the point where I have a true voice and, at this point in my life and my career, I have a responsibility to do what’s best for the world and not what is most popular.”

Set against the background of an HBCU marching band, her show included tributes to Nina Simone and Malcom X. She also sang what is highly regarded as the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice.”

Months after Beychella, black culture received another dose of validation on another one of the world’s largest stages, the Royal wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. A spiritual rendition of “Stand By Me,” a preacher from Chicago, and a black cellist expanded the hue of what royalty traditionally looks like. The icing on the cake was Markle’s black mother, Dori Ragland, center stage with her dreads gracefully flowing under her hat.

California teen turned activist Emma Gonzales became the face and voice of March For Our Lives that plans to elevate the voices of young people this summer by increasing voter turnout in states such as California and Connecticut, that can turn the tide on gun reform. Gonzales, an LGBTQ Latina, is one of the group’s most prominent leaders, has quickly risen to power with over 1.6 million twitter followers.

To the dismay of many Catholics, Pope Francis has courageously departed to what many view as outdated traditions of the Catholic church including its views on divorce, abortion, homosexuality and immigration.

Along with the innovators such as Colin Kaepernick, Tarana Burke, Rose McGowan and others launching #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #TimesUp and other social justice initiatives, all of these influencers have reached a level of personal power so high, it transcends systemic power.

When personal power reaches that height and authenticity, power reaches its greatest potential because it uplifts those marginalized by current structures.

According to a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, “Powerful people are less likely to see constraints in pursuing their goals. Meanwhile, their low-power counterparts are more aware of the risks around them.”

The powerful then have more of an ability to break the norms and implicit rules society is governed by and can provide an opening to consider a new norm. One model demonstrates three stages of a new norm: emergence by these innovators, proliferation of the new norm often accelerated by social media and acceptance of the new norm.

Any one of us can have this influence without being a Lebron, Beyonce, Meghan or Francis.

For the past year, I have been on a journey to discover my own voice and personal power, which has culminated in my participation as a fellow in The OpEd Project, an initiative aiming to increase the quality of voices and range of ideas we hear in the world. Here’s what I have learned.

Create a platform. In 2006, “You” became the Time person of the year for the explosion of user-generated content. Twelve years later, the tech delivery mechanisms of individual voices have changed and are updated constantly, but the reverence for individual voice and personal story remains the same.

As evidenced by the enormous influence of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students who have brought hundreds of thousands to rally against gun violence in schools and society, it is evident that power to change the world is no longer a commodity relegated to those with money, fame or position.

“Thanks to today’s ubiquitous connectivity, we can come together and organize ourselves in ways that are geographically boundless and highly distributed and with high velocity and reach,” write Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms in New Power: ow Power Works in our Hyper Connected World-And How to Make it Work for You.

Whether it’s writing a blog, oped, or other forms of social media, create a platform and have the courage to begin sharing your voice and connecting to others. Here are four tools to using your personal power.

Speak anyway. The imposter syndrome, or that voice in your head that convinces you that you haven’t accomplished as much as you have, is common. Despite that defeating voice, have the courage to speak anyway. Jennifer Palmeri, former communications director to President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, explains that if you are one of the few woman or people of color in the room, your perspective matters more, not less.

Confront that voice in your head. It’s difficult to be powerful when you feel powerless. Whether it’s because you are a woman, person of color, undereducated, too old, too young, poor or whatever your life circumstance is that tells you that “you” are not supposed to be at the table, as Stacey Abrams, the first black nominee for the governor of Georgia states, “Don’t tell yourself no, let others do that.” If there is a voice inside telling you “no,” find someone you trust — -a friend, family member, therapist — and explore why it is there. It’s often our emotions, not our actual capability that prevents us from being powerful.

Define your target audience. Define what specific area you need to impact and who you need to reach to achieve that impact. It doesn’t not need to be a world impact. Reaching others in your community or even at your job is enough if that accomplishes your intended goals.

Use power of your voice competently. The debacle last month of Roseanne Barr tweets that cost her a successful television show is the antithesis of power used well. A key sign that your personal power is being used competently is that it serves and uplifts others; particularly, those without power and influence.

Power may seem elusive and something assigned, earned or inherited by others at the top of their fields. But it is also something you can creatively access to make yourself an influencer. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Kimberly Manns is Managing Director of Early Matters Dallas, a coalition of over 150 community partners working to increase early childhood outcomes. She is Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project and the former Deputy Director of Policy and Communications for the Mayor of Baltimore.