Wising Up to Power In Leadership

As a coach I find one of the biggest challenges leaders face is knowing how to relate to the power and authority that comes with their role.

Some leaders are so uncomfortable with the idea that they habitually defer to others and fail to take action on issues that turn into major problems.  But sidestepping the question of power and leadership, is short-sighted.

If we are to develop confidence in our use of power in leadership, we need to understand it.  It’s important to be able to differentiate between the effective use of power and its misuse.  We need to recognise the circumstances in which each of us may be prone to using power poorly.

The Effective Use of Power

Power exercised with responsibility enables others.  Workers who feel empowered report higher morale and are more productive.  They can address problems that appear on the shop floor before they turn into crises.  Customers love doing business with companies whose management and staff can make decisions and resolve issues on the spot.

However power isn’t always used well.

As leaders and citizens we need to come to terms with both the potential power holds and its shadow side.

Balancing Power and Ambition

Being a business leader brings high performance expectations.  There is a constant pressure on those in leadership and management to do more with less.  In a bid for growth businesses vie not only against their competitors, but with their own last quarter’s performance figures.  Government leaders go head to head in opinion polls, while community leaders face the scrutiny of the media.

Whilst competition can spur individuals and teams on to new discoveries and achievements the pressure to remain in or gain the No 1 position is fraught with danger.  Anyone determined to achieve their goals at all costs is at high risk of misusing their power.

In pursuit of their agenda, some business leaders develop a myopic focus on results.  They don’t give enough thought to how they achieve their business goals and in particular, to how they behave.  Any leader with ambition needs to keep a sober eye on who they become along the way.

Leaders who haven’t learnt to manage the pressures of the role often displace their frustrations onto others.  Under fire they can become petulant. At times things are said that they later regret.

When leaders lash out, their positional authority creates a multiplier effect.  What might seem to someone in power to be nothing more than a display of impatience can have far-reaching consequences. Harsh comments can come across as threats, a demand can feel like coercion, while a silent glare is experienced as intimidation.

In extreme cases, the power that comes with the leadership role is flagrantly abused.  Rules and standards can be imposed that set others up for failure.  Essential resources are withheld or the goalposts are changed so often that chaos results.  Most people can tell you a horror story about a boss who calls for scalps when things don’t go to plan.

The impact of this style of management is costly for individuals and the company’s bottom-line.  Important issues tend to go underground, with few brave enough to point to potential problems or organisational fault-lines.  When their term is over, few are sorry to see these leaders gone.  The new CEO’s first task is to stabilize the organization and regain employee trust and confidence.

While in recent years there has been growing recognition that some leaders who abuse their power may be classic psychopaths, it’s rarely so clear cut.  The problem with such labels is that they allow us to cordon off unacceptable behaviour in the workplace and pretend that we’re not capable of it.  And that’s dangerous!!

Instead leaders need to be educated about the challenges of the role and the impact it can have on them.  Whilst it would be a good beginning, it’s not enough to provide that education only in MBA programs. Leaders need to examine and re-examine the way they use their power.  We need to ask ourselves what it means to use power well.

With this in mind, over the next few months my posts will explore power in the workplace from a range of perspectives.  I invite you to share your thoughts as we become more aware of the nuances of power and how we use it.


What first comes to mind when you think about power and leadership?

In what ways are you proud of the way you use your power?

Which of your habits might have a multiplier effect, given your positional power?

What is their potential impact on others?

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