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Power lessons from Bill Gates, Barack Obama and Brangelina

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This post is by Terry R. Bacon, a scholar in residence at The Korn/Ferry Institute and the author of “The Elements of Power” and “Elements of Influence.”

For the past 20 years, I have been studying power and influence among leaders worldwide. What makes some leaders more powerful than others? How do they derive their power? And how do they sustain it?

I discovered that leaders have 11 sources of power available, some stemming from their position and others from personal attributes and capabilities. Three of those sources — knowledge, eloquence and attraction — are particularly potent. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, President Barack Obama and actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie — or “Brangelina,” in pop-culture speak — arguably demonstrate such voltage. Lessons for leaders:

Knowledge power: Bill Gates

Your knowledge power represents what you know and what you can do. It embodies your talents, skills and abilities, as well as your wisdom and accomplishments.

  • Applied knowledge reigns supreme. Gates was fortunate to have come up during the tech industry’s infancy. What separated him from other upstarts, however, was his drive and determination to apply his knowledge in ways that people most valued. The lesson for leaders? It isn’t enough to know a lot; you have to apply your knowledge in highly practical and valuable ways.
  • Technical knowledge alone is not sufficient. Gates was a brilliant programmer, but he also had a keen understanding of business. That’s the reason Microsoft is what it is today. The lesson for leaders? Whatever special knowledge you may possess, it’s crucial that you also develop business smarts.
  • Curiosity can lead to many domains of knowledge. Gates didn’t always invent what was new, yet his insatiable curiosity about advances in technology drove a number of Microsoft’s innovations. The lesson for leaders? Be insanely curious about advances in your field, and apply them at your company.

Expressiveness power: Barack Obama

Your expressiveness power is your eloquence, your ability to communicate powerfully and persuasively in speaking and writing. In its most dynamic form, the power of eloquence can increase a leader’s influence more than any other power source.

Politics aside, here’s what you can learn about expressiveness power from Obama, the 44th U.S. president and the first African-American to hold the office.

  • Eloquent speech is extraordinarily influential. In his bid for the presidency, Obama was faulted by detractors for his lack of experience. Yet, what made him a powerful candidate, what made him the successful candidate, was his power of speech. He was able to persuade voters to passionately support him. The lesson for leaders? Eloquence is a critical skill, whether you are leading a country or a company.
  • Inspiring people pays substantial dividends. Obama understood the mood of the populace in his run-up to the White House, and he crafted a message of hope and change. He inspired people to contribute to his campaign in record numbers and to vote for him in the primary and general elections. The lesson for leaders? You can inspire people by appealing to what they want and value most.
  • Poise matters. Throughout Obama’s presidential campaign, and perhaps increasingly so today, critics attacked him on any number of levels, including assorted ad hominem issues. Obama, however, always remained poised, choosing not to respond to attackers in ways that could show him to be thin-skinned or vengeful. The lesson for leaders? Regardless of the heat or negative spirit of a situation, react with the kind of poise that people want from a leader.

Attraction power: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie

Your attraction power reflects your ability to draw people to you, to cause them to like you and prefer you to others. The attraction might be physical, but it can also come from warmth, wisdom, personality, shared experiences or common values. Globally, attraction power is a strong source, and a high rating can more than triple a leader’s power, influence and success.

Here’s what you can learn from Pitt and Jolie.

  • There is a high premium for attractiveness. Pitt and Jolie are lauded as one of the most beautiful couples in the world. Both have reaped the benefits of their attractiveness in their careers as actors and in their wide-ranging humanitarian work, including Jolie’s role as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations and Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, an area decimated by Hurricane Katrina. The lesson for leaders? If you’ve got it, use it — yes, for business success but also for good works.
  • Likeability and attractiveness are a powerful combination. Pitt and Jolie are not only beautiful but also likeable. That can — and does — open doors for them, particularly when they’re working to build awareness or support for their worthy causes. The lesson for leaders? Regardless of your physical attractiveness, it’s important to build attraction power through your values, personality and work ethic. Likeability, in essence, makes you a more desirable leader.
  • Character plays an important role in attraction. Pitt and Jolie are attractive, in part, because of their commitment to helping people who are far less fortunate than they are. The lesson for leaders? The content of your character is as important as your likeability and attractiveness. In fact, attraction without character is more likely to be a power drain than a power source.