Power, Competence and Security in Leadership

In the documentary A Complicated Life: Kerry Packer, his friend and confidante Philip Adams explained that the business magnate famously yelled at his staff, when he didn’t know what else to say to them.  This account is consistent with research suggesting that poor use of power by leaders is often a reaction to feelings of personal vulnerability.

Whilst power insulates leaders from many challenges, researchers suggest that power brings greater susceptibility to psychological threats.  These threats can come in the form of self-doubt, low status or insecurity about one’s position as a leader.

So why is it that leaders are so sensitive to challenges to their identity or self-concept?

Drawing on studies conducted in the workplace and the laboratory, Fast and Chen found that individuals in power tend to use their power more aggressively when they feel incompetent.

These findings are important because they help us recognise factors that can lead to the misuse of power.

To understand these pressure points we need to appreciate what happens when someone enters a key leadership role.  For starters, the demands of the role require a genuinely high level of competence!  Leaders are expected to be able to read the future: to be across trends and developments in their industry and to anticipate what their competitors are up to. They need to know their people and how to get the best out of them.

The consequence of errors of judgement are usually greater when we are in a position of power.  Leaders’ decisions effect many people.  A leader’s learning and mistakes often occur in public, while their choices and behaviours are subject to comment and critique from within the workplace and the wider community.  Some individuals feel their reputation is on the line on a daily basis.

But it’s not just public expectations that leaders have to contend with.  Many leaders hold strong internal expectations that they should be competent at all times – and in all domains.  In Kerry Packer’s case this pressure was imposed on him from early childhood. He learnt to internalise that pressure.  This can make it hard to ask for help.

Fast and Chen’s research suggests that leaders who doubt their own capability are prone to rely on force on the very occasions they might benefit from consulting others.  It is in the face of uncertainty, that leaders are most at risk of dominating others and quashing dissent rather than listening to reason.  Ironically, this heightens the likelihood of them making a bad call (and further damaging their confidence and track record).

So what are the alternatives?

Leaders with a strong collective orientation draw on the resources of their team.  They gather skilled people around them and are not afraid to rely on them.  These individuals don’t rely on supremacy for their self esteem.

However it takes a well-developed sense of self to share power with others, in a way that truly honors and respects their contribution.

There is evidence to suggest that those in power tend to boost their self-assessment by being more derogatory of others’ performance compared with their own.

Those in power who receive an ‘average’ rather than ‘excellent’ rating on their own performance evaluations are more likely to rate their subordinates poorly, or to assign unreasonable tasks to them. It has been suggested that when faced with their own shortcomings these leaders may act against others in order to appear more competent .  For leaders who fear for their own positions, this self-serving use of power reduces the risk of being replaced by an emerging talent.

So what can we learn from these studies?  For starters it’s important for those in leadership to feel supported and secure in their roles.  According to Melissa Williams it’s important that leaders are spared “the need to continually prove themselves to be superior to their subordinates and colleagues – yet they should not be so invulnerable that they no longer need to account for their actions to others.”

Whilst it is not healthy for employees to kowtow to their organisational leaders, there is a clear case for affirming leaders for those things they do well.  Research shows that a lot of the negative associations of power, can be ameliorated when subordinates express gratitude for leaders’ help and guidance. Leaders, like most humans, need encouragement.

But leaders also need to come to terms with they’re their own fallibility.  They need to realize they are human after all!

Mentors and coaches can be called on to help individuals to re-assess their expectations of themselves and the assumptions they hold about leadership.

Finally, leaders should be encouraged to access trusted allies, who can provide reliable feedback and counsel when it’s needed.


How do you assess your own competence on the job?

What do you know about your own insecurities? What triggers them? How do you react?

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