would you choose to be powerful or warm? ( + the secret of compelling people)




I posed the question to my Facebook peeps: would you rather be known for your power or your warmth?

It was inspired by the book COMPELLING PEOPLE by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut.

They explain that when we first meet someone, we instinctively and intuitively decide whether they can help us or if they might hurt us. We pick up on subtle cues, hints and signals about whether someone is strong (ie: can make stuff happen, has power and impact) or warm (shares our feelings, interests and worldview).

Usually there’s a trade-off between the two. The more powerful we perceive a person to be, the less warm; the more warm we perceive a person to be, the less powerful.

There’s a biological basis for this. The key chemical agent of strength, of dominance and risk-taking, is testosterone. Testosterone acts to inhibit oxytocin, which expresses warmth and empathy. So the more you have of the one, the less you’re likely to have of the other. They are battling each other in your blood.

The ability to exude both strength and warmth – according to the authors – is so rare that the Greeks referred to it as “the divine gift”, also known as charisma. (We might call it “leadership potential”, “cool”, “the X factor”, or the magical “it”.)


We expect men to be strong and powerful.

We expect women to be warm and caring.

And we don’t like to have those expectations violated. We’ll even penalize the people who do it (a kind of anti-stereotype backlash). We’ll accuse a caring, empathic man of being a wuss, being pussywhipped. We’ll accuse a powerful woman of being a cold bitch, a ballbreaker, an unnatural freak (Hillary Clinton, anyone?).

Could this be why we women have such a complicated relationship with power and ambition?

I thought of this when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer appeared in VOGUE magazine. She is glammed up and sprawled upside down on a lounge chair. It’s a rather powerless position for such a powerful woman, and this would seem to be the point.

By “playing into stereotype”, as one female commenter on CNN’s Facebook page accused her of doing, Marissa is dialing up her likeability.

(Likeability is important to getting ahead. If people don’t like you, they won’t do business with you, mentor or support or promote you. Women are well aware of this, which is a major reason why they won’t ask or negotiate for raises the same way men do. On some level they fear that their likeability will take a hit, and the damage to their career will outweigh any immediate financial benefit.)

This might also be why Marissa made it a point to distance herself from feminism, even though the woman practically embodies what feminism stands for (equality, equality, equality!).

But according to Neffinger and Kohut, dimming your power is not the answer. What you should do, instead, is to turn up your warmth. One way is to use your power on behalf of a group. As Sheryl Sandberg – another formidable female — points out in her book LEAN IN, the culture will “allow” women to be ambitious and powerful so long as they are fighting on behalf of other people and not just themselves.

But maybe that’s the way it should be – for men as well as women.

One of my favorite quotes is from Martin Luther King. In COMPELLING PEOPLE, he is held up (along with Oprah) as an example of someone with “the divine gift” of charisma, who embodies both warmth and strength:

“One of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites…What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

The world doesn’t just need love. It needs warriors for love. click to tweet


When I posed the question on my Facebook page, most of the women said they’d rather be known for their warmth. This didn’t surprise me. One woman considered the question to be “Machiavellian” (Machiavelli is famous for stating that you can be loved or feared, but not both).

The few women who chose power tended to speak from a place of disillusionment: “warmth only gets you so far,” said one.

Another woman said that her warmth had allowed people to take advantage of her.

When you’ve been on the receiving end of an abuse of power – as an individual or as part of a group – you’re more likely to have a distaste for it. “Personal power drives some mighty bad behavior in human beings,” pointed out a woman who chose warmth. Who could argue with this? After all, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

And yet.

How can we, as women and the friends of women, change the world and elevate the global sisterhood, if we don’t have the power to do so?

What if we could redefine power?

What if we rejected power over other people — the kind of power that controls and dominates, that suppresses and oppresses — and embraced the power to create, collaborate, inspire, make change?

What if more women realized that by stepping into their personal power, they were also empowering other women through both their example and their ability to represent?

What if, instead of downplaying our power, we up-played our warmth? Our love?

“My warmth is my power,” declared both Danielle LaPorte and Rafael O. Quezada.

They make an excellent point.

It’s interesting to note that the earlier incarnations of the goddess Aphrodite were the goddesses Astarte and Ishtar, evolving as one civilization conquered another and reshaped that culture’s mythology. It’s interesting to note that these were the goddesses of love, fertility…and war. The feminine was regarded as receptive and loving, yes, but it was also formidable and fierce. It destroyed as well as created. It destroyed in order to create.

The world needs people who can fight for love, who are lover-warriors and total badasses, who recognize love as the ultimate power – because it alone has the power to heal.

We could all probably use some of that.

Sep 5, 2013

12 comments · Add Yours

This puts me in mind of some seminal reading I did in college (and how’s that for patriarchy? Seminal). Starhawk (witch and feminist) compared “power over” versus “power from within” and transformed my perspective. I’m trying now to teach my kids “where can I find power in myself in this situation?” While trying to remember it for myself, too.


I like that a lot.

(I’ve downloaded a book of Starhawk’s but haven’t read it yet.)


This is what makes languages so interesting to me. Here, the inner strength Power is a different word from the controlling/abusive Power, which makes it a lot easier to reconcile wanting to have both Power and empathy. We’re not quite past the concept of warm = doormat however…. It’s sometimes a lonely road if you refuse to be the latter.


Great points in this article. While we are looking at the downside to power, let’s not forget the downside to warmth. If we break it down and see that the warmth – the yin side of things – is really the receptive trait, we’ll see that there is a passivity there, which helps others to feel safe at an instinctual level. Great. But the other side of that coin is addiction and apathy (lack of boundary and discipline). Maybe strong words but I don’t see many women – any anyone for that matter – getting too real with the downside of warmth. I think if we were as clear about the downside of warmth as we are of the downside of power we’d be more motivated to blend the two in the ways suggested above rather than remaining so hesitant to step toward a little power.


@Molly Morrissey
What a great point! Everything had a light and dark side; I think it does take a love warrior to be honest enough to look at that truth.


i really like where you land in this piece, on the notion of being “receptive and loving, yes, but… also formidable and fierce.” you bring up Astarte and Ishtar, and my mind is already gone to Kali — for me an essential balancing ingredient! the sad part (for me) is this tendency we have to dichotomize — either warm or powerful, either like-able or leadership material. for us to break out of the limited definitions that (try to) bind us, here’s to choosing Both/And, to forging our own individual combinations of sweet and savory, salty and hot! xo


As always Justine, awesome stuff. I am all about the women warrior, and have worked very hard to balance being powerful with vulnerability.

Have you read the “Quest of the Warrior Woman?”

Thanks again for your insight.



You can’t have both? To be feared and to be loved? Do people need to be so extreme? I think a balance is important as well as a place to be one or the other. Depends on the situation.


Of course you can have both — but it’s difficult, because the two traits tend to undercut each other, as I explain in the article.

People don’t need to be extreme — of course not — most people aren’t particularly feared *or* loved. (And the ones who manage to be both are the ones who stand out against history.) I do think people naturally lean toward being one or the other. (I’m not sure a very loving, gentle person can suddenly decide to be a fearsome badass, for example.) The situation might change, but your reputation tends to be consistent and certainly shapes how people respond to you (which shapes how you see yourself).


@kirstin falk I haven’t, but I’ll look it up now!


Thanks for this post, and for sharing a favourite quote about love and power. I was introduced to it in Adam Kahane’s book Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change. Here’s a bit from a post I wrote about it:


Adam invited us to suspend our current understanding of power and love for the duration of his talk. He wasn’t talking about power over or oppression only, or falling in love or romance. Instead Adam uses definitions of power and love from the theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich:

Power: The drive of everything living to realize itself, with increasing intensity and extensity. So power in this sense is the drive to achieve one’s purpose, to get one’s job done, to grow.

Love: The drive towards the unity of the separated. So love in this sense is the drive to reconnect and make whole that which has become or appears fragmented.

Then layer in the concept of holons, where all entities are wholes and parts. In understanding love and power it’s very important to know at any given moment which entity you are talking about, as every social holon has two sides:

The drive to realize itself (power to). The degenerative side, power-over, is the stealing or suppression of the self-realizing of the other.

The drive to unite the separated (love). Our love is degenerative when it overlooks, denies or suffocates power.

But now what? Is it about choosing between power or love? Adam suggests that there is a permanent tension and we can’t choose, but we resolve it by cycling between the two. He described:

Is love dominating? Make a power move. Assert or build the individual (yes I’m part of but I’m also a whole). Is power dominating? Make a love move. Bring together and connect, reveal or build integration (we’re parts of something larger – oneness). In multi-stakeholder dialogue, the first act of bringing the parts together is in essence a love move. Unite the separated. That alone is not enough – the oneness. Social change happens when power can be exercised. The group sees the connections, organize, choose and act on their own course of self-realization. You get power flowing out of love.


Thanks for connecting me back to this!


I often want to recommend the insightful book to my clients. But given that they are so busy, I’m reluctant to do so. I found your post and am so impressed with how you have cogently, warmly, and powerfully presented the thesis. Now I will recommend clients read this post, then the book if they are compelled to do so. Now back to fighting for the people.


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