A Journey Through the Stages of Personal Power


By Stephanie Miller

Where do you derive your sense of “personal power”? How is it influenced by your environment, whether it’s a professional organization or a college campus? In her book Real Power: Stages of Personal Power in Organizations, Janet Hagberg explores six stages through which our ego travels in search of personal power, demonstrating that real power transcends achievements and external successes.

When inspecting my own understanding of personal power, I identified a few sources from which I derived my sense of success. My level of education, my job title, and my organization’s reputation served as more than just “resume builders” — they became my definition of self-worth. As a young professional working in a large organization, Hagberg’s model has helped me to build resiliency, recognize the danger in letting others’ perceptions of success become my own, and reflect on the career choices I have made. 

I live in Ann Arbor and work for Michigan Medicine in the Frankel Cardiovascular Center. My job title is cardiac sonographer, which means I am a specialized technologist who performs ultrasounds of the heart. My daily routine involves doing tests for up to eight patients every day, taking detailed measurements within the heart. Many patients I see are quite sick and depend on my specialized test results for diagnoses and care from their doctor and medical team. 

I was satisfied in my role until I observed the way those referred to as “techs” within the healthcare system are treated and viewed. Despite what I accomplished to achieve the highest level of success in my position, I am generally not seen as “powerful” by those with whom I interact most. I am frequently asked, “Are you a student at U-M?” When I respond, “No, I graduated from another school. I moved here to work at the hospital,” the next question is, “Where did you attend school?” I answer, “Grand Valley State University,” and the last question usually is, “Are you a nurse?” 

Following these types of questions, I feel immense pressure to prove my “worth” or “power” in terms that hold value relative to the person asking. I spend much of my time at work and my personal time around town defending myself, explaining myself, proving myself. Through this process I realized that all along, I’ve been seeking power in the wrong places.

I was introduced to Janet Hagberg’s model a year ago while sharing a plate of vegan nachos with two friends. When one of my friends declared “Getting into U-M is the only thing I have to be proud of,” I was immediately triggered. She claimed her association with the University of Michigan was an instant guarantee for employer interest. A heated debate followed, and the two of us discussed the meaning of pride, power, and value of accomplishments until discussion bordered on argument. Meanwhile, our third friend was observing our differences.

“You both bring up a lot of good points. This reminds me of the different stages of personal power,” she shared, and proceeded to describe the six stages of power explored in Hagberg’s book. After delving into Hagberg’s theory, I realized the likelihood that my friend and I were in the midst of different stages on our journey to personal power.

Janet Hagberg’s first stage of personal power is, naturally, powerlessness, where we feel we have little to no power. Hagberg describes that, in this stage, many of us are unaware of our talents or capabilities and are awestruck by authority. Before having any sense of personal power ourselves, we depend on others for examples of, and guidance toward, success. This is where my journey began and where my ego developed a deep wound.

When I was 18 years old and ready to graduate high school, I believed that I could not impress anyone unless I received a fancy degree from a prestigious university. To my disappointment, none of the universities I was interested in offered my degree of choice (sonography). I eventually found a lesser-known university that could provide me with my desired title, but depended heavily on comparing my educational path to others,’ shaping the future for my definition of “power.”

The second stage of personal power is that by association, a sense of power derived from others we view as having power. In my mind, and in coordination with Hagberg’s stages, those associated with more prestigious universities had more power than me. I impatiently awaited college graduation, desperate to arrive at what I believed to be a more powerful accomplishment: a degree and a respectable job title.

Graduating college. Landing that interview. Earning a promotion. These are all examples of power by achievement, or Hagberg’s third stage of personal power. Any situation from which we gain evidence of our ability is an opportunity to be perceived as more powerful. 

Despite earning a bachelor’s degree and accepting a job at Michigan Medicine, I felt no greater sense of personal power than I did before graduating high school. Stuck in the story that I was only as powerful as those guiding me, those with whom I associate, and that which I’ve accomplished, I could not be satisfied with my innate power. I was heart-wrenchingly reminded of this when I heard my friend speak evidence of her own power by achievement: “Getting into U-M is the only thing I have to be proud of.”

The fourth stage begins the reversal of dependence upon others for power, appropriately titled power by reflection. This stage is characterized by a shift as the search for power moves from external to internal and we seek meaning in our success. Just as I was losing hope in feeling that sense of importance so many powerful people seem to possess, I realized I had been seeking personal power everywhere except for within my own person. During a transformative yoga teacher training, I developed an introspective meditation practice, which helped me to shed self-protective layers encompassing my identity. When my understanding of “power” evolved, everything changed. I realized I couldn’t find anything outside of myself that made me more valuable than I already accepted myself to be.

Power by purpose is the fifth stage of personal power, closely related to the reflective fourth stage. Upon reflection we find that power exists within us regardless of our external associations and influences. Accepting this sense of self and knowing one’s importance enables us to recognize the same in our community; if we possess all the personal power from which we can draw, so do others. When driven by purpose, those in stage five have the ability to empower the innate value of others.

The final stage is power by wisdom. This stage involves a level of contentment 

with both the successes and the hardships that accompany the previous stages, knowing that both have led to immense growth. Transitioning into power by wisdom means we have experienced both the absence and abundance of personal power. Wisdom is a lifelong development; therefore, this stage hardly has a beginning and certainly has no end. I see now that the journey has never been linear like climbing a ladder, but rather circular, like spiraling closer to oneself.

With awareness of my journey through the stages of personal power I have developed new definitions of self-worth. My education does not give me power, but rather my strong sense of perseverance and passion for learning. It’s not my job title that deems me in a position of power, it’s my empathic ability in a healing setting that exhibits the personal power I have as a caregiver. The organization where I work does not make me powerful—  have always been powerful. Michigan Medicine simply serves as an opportunity for me to practice the many innate, powerful qualities that led me here in the first place.

Stephanie Miller is a sonographer at the Cardiovascular Center at the U-M, and a lover of learning, connecting, and evolving into a more compassionate being.  She can be reached at stephanietollis@gmail.com

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Posted on September 1, 2019 and filed under Calendar Essays, Issue #73, Psychology.