Power can take many forms but how does it apply in the context of leadership? How does power help or hinder a leader and what exactly does it mean to be a leader with power? I’m excited. Let’s explore through the lens of my experience in leadership.
Does a leader need power? Absolutely a leader needs power, although it may not be the sort of power that first comes to mind. A leader needs the right type of power to empower, inspire, influence and change perceptions so they can bring out the best in people.
I started my management career at a very young age. At 20 I started at a company as a telemarketer and quickly moved up in the ranks and became the second-best salesman in the company(second only to my younger brother…boo). Because of this, another company in a similar industry recruited me, and at 21 I became a sales manager. I managed my employees with an iron fist, tracking their calls, pointing out their failures, making sure they weren’t a minute late for their shift and that they didn’t leave a second early.
I guess you could say I had some power, but mostly I had authority and I used it to micromanage my employees to an extremely high degree. Why did I do this? Because it was all I knew. Throughout my limited experience in the workforce, all of my managers operated in this manner and so I thought this was the way. I’ll talk more about the difference between authority and power later on.
Power is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as: The capacity to influence the behavior of others or the course of events. Power very often has a negative connotation because of how power can be abused, and has been abused countless times throughout history. Adolph Hitler was extremely powerful. He influenced people and changed history. But power is neither good nor bad and it can be used for either. It is all up to the person.
Power in leadership can be grouped into two broad categories. The first is a house of cards and like a house of cards, it won’t last. The second has much more staying power and its roots are strong, its foundations solid. Some fancy wordplay there but it’s true and it’s a concept that very often people don’t grasp.
The Wrong Type of Power in Leadership
The Power of Incentives
Incentives can be a powerful motivator but unfortunately, they are extrinsic and they don’t last. You can promise people bonuses, vacations, cars, you name it but those will only serve to temporarily change behavior; it simply will not last. This is not a new concept and literature today looks much like it did 40+ years ago. Here is an interesting article from the Harvard Business Review which goes into some of the history and explores the issue in-depth.
Incentives enforce short-term compliance but they don’t bolster or create intrinsic motivation. When people work towards an incentive they are focused only on the short term and that may or may not align with the overarching goal or strategy. This means incentives can actually be worse than doing nothing in some cases.
The Power of Fear and Punishment
Fear is a powerful motivator. Fear of harm coming to ourselves or loved ones, fear of rejection, fear of the unknown. Ever hear the stories of parents lifting a car off of their child or loved one? This is fear at it’s best. Adrenaline floods the system and a person is capable of doing incredible things.
However, fear does not belong in the workplace. The problem with fear is that while it can be an extremely powerful motivator, it creates an environment where creativity and experimentation cannot flourish. A leader who wields fear can bend people to his/her will but to what effect? When you have fearful employees you have employees who are going to enforce the status quo. Fear stifles creativity. If employees don’t have the freedom to try new things, to make mistakes without the fear of losing their jobs, then they will stay within their predefined box and true leaps cannot be made.
The Power of Station
I’ve seen this over and over again, especially from people who have been in a position of authority for a long time. Very often they forget how to lead. They are so used to having authority that they expect employees to listen regardless of how the information is presented. They have an expectation that their demands be followed blindly simply because they issued the order. This type of power doesn’t inspire commitment to a greater cause. The employee will follow direction for the most part…until a new job presents itself. Or perhaps they do what they are asked but instead of truly taking the task on, and really engaging, they simply go through the motions to get the job done to a minimum satisfactory level. In this case, the employee is just doing as they are told and no more. They are not inspired to do more, to explore the task at a deeper level.
The Right Type of Power in Leadership
The Power to inspire
Great leaders don’t just shout out orders and expect them to be followed. Great leaders create intrinsic motivation. They understand motivation and use it to their advantage. They share their vision and inspire their people.
Inspiring employees is about empowering them to make their own decisions, to share in the vision of the company and take it on as their own. When a person is inspired they are internally motivated to take action and if their vision is aligned with the company then they will automatically be executing that vision without any external factors. Of course, that doesn’t mean they don’t need guidance.
The Power of Relinquishing control
Yes, you read that right. Relinquishing control is extremely hard for a lot of people but it can be extremely powerful. The type of people who can’t relinquish control are your typical micro-managers. They have to be involved in every task. They frequently come in early and leave late, looking frazzled and complaining about how busy they are. They believe that nothing gets done right unless they are directly involved. I’ve seen this type of person everywhere, in every business I have ever worked for. They rarely make it past mid-high management. Once in awhile they might make it to Director but very rarely would they make it to even junior VP.
A leader who is in charge of thousands of people has no choice but to relinquish control. They are not physically capable of being involved in every task so they must focus their attention on managing people instead of tasks. When they relinquish control of every aspect and focus on developing people and mindset they actually expand their power even though they have relinquished some direct control. Anyone who can adopt this mindset can leverage themselves to a far greater degree.
The Power of Consistency
Human beings need consistency. Erratic behavior from a leader can sink a vision faster than most anything. You are driving into work and traffic is terrible. On the way in you realize that you have missed an important deadline. Maybe your life has been stressful and you just forgot. Regardless of the exact reason, you are feeling quite apprehensive about what is going to happen today. Why are you apprehensive? Well first off you missed a deadline but in addition to that, you have a leader who is erratic. You might get yelled at, you might get punished or you might get a laugh and a “don’t even worry about that it wasn’t really important anyway”.
Now let’s say you work for someone consistent. You know exactly what to expect. You can gameplan for the reaction that you know will be coming and if you have a good reason that you missed the deadline you can be mostly confident that this person you work for will have a certain level of understanding.
Erratic behavior breeds inconsistency and everyone needs consistency. When people don’t have consistency in a facet of life they tend to move towards consistency. In straight terms, consistency helps in numerous ways, not the least of which is retention.
Consistency is an essential part of human existence and consistent leaders allow people to be comfortable.
Authority VS Power
Often power and authority are used synonymously when in reality they are quite different. For example when you think authority a judge comes to mind or perhaps a police officer or government official. Power is about having the ability to get others to do what you want and so it is not something that is bestowed and has nothing to do with title. Often a person with power does not have any authority in the traditional sense. Think Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr. as people with great power and influence but little authority.
I had authority at my first sales manager job but very little power. I had a title and I told people what to do, and they mostly listened, but I wasn’t leading them. I didn’t share with them the vision of the company and inspire them. Thankfully I’ve learned a lot since then.