If you want to lead others, you need to get comfortable with the concept of power. In my experience, emerging leaders sometimes stumble over the use of power for one of two reasons. Either they are too comfortable with it and wield it ruthlessly, or they are so fearful of it they avoid it completely.
Leaders must strike a balance. “The sole purpose of power,” as the great 17th century Jesuit philosopher Baltasar Gracián wrote, “is to do good.” That is as an effective approach because it gets to the nature of what leaders must do: achieve positive results for the organization.
This prescription may be altruistic, but it is not a prescription for avoiding the tough issues. Leaders must often make decisions that will cause pain to individuals, but those decisions should always be undertaken with the intention of helping the organization succeed.
Using power appropriately is the secret to leading effectively. Here are some suggestions (adapted from my book) on how leaders can apply power to enhance their ability to get things done — and done right.
There isn’t much good that has come out of the Great Recession to date except the humbling of some big egos on Wall Street. However, there might be one small benefit that I’ve noticed after doing some coaching with executives pondering next steps in their careers.
Being out of work has forced highly capable men and women professionals to consider what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Some, due to financial pressures, need to get back to work immediately — and so are ready, willing and able to take a job, any job that comes their way. But a good many others, particularly those with more than two decades in the workforce, have an opportunity that has not occurred to them since college: The chance to ask themselves, again, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”
To answer this question, you need to do some homework… on yourself. The five questions below will prompt responses that challenge your assumptions about the way you live your life now — and the way you want to lead it from now on.
Where do your talents lie? Talent is a mixture of ability and proclivity. You have a capacity to do certain things, whether it’s think creatively or keeping a disciplined schedule. At the same time, you have preferences such as working independently, collaborating in teams, or leading projects. Some talents are evident in youth, others emerge over time in the workplace. Recognizing both your abilities and proclivities is essential to your personal growth.
Major change initiatives may bubble up from the ranks, but their success depends upon the advocacy of those at the top. Winning those folks to your side is essential, but it’s not enough. You have to make your influence felt one on one, person to person.
Get involved where you can have the most positive impact.
As a change agent, your challenge is to integrate your way of thinking into the organization in ways that do not threaten individuals but rather complement the goals and strategies of the organization.
Feeling frustrated at work, especially late in the day? Most of us feel this way from time to time. The challenge is what to do about it.
Do what competitive divers do: get up on the diving board and execute a dive in which you excel. Then call it quits for the day.
That advice was given to my daughter, a drop-in diver in a collegiate program. She was a competitive diver in her teens; now that she’s taken up the sport again, she’s struggling to regain her peak form. Diving is a discipline that requires a combination of athleticism, timing, and more than a touch of grace, not to mention strong nerves with equal parts will power.
One day she had hit a wall and was about to leave when her coach pulled her aside and said, “You can leave now if you like, but instead of leaving in state of frustration, why don’t you finish practice with a dive you know you do well?” My daughter followed her advice and ended up finishing practice feeling much better about herself and her abilities.
And that’s exactly what us non-divers need to do at the end of our frustrating day. Things do go wrong, whether as the result of our own mistakes or from those of others, or from a system or process that failed. And whatever the cause, tension builds. To prevent that stress from ruining our evening, or the next day, it’s good to find ways to dissipate it. Doing so at work — before you head home — is a good first step. Here are some suggestions.
Crises often occur unexpectedly. What can never be unexpected is a leader’s response.
The leader must assume control of the response with alacrity as well as authority. Integral to the response must be the leader’s command presence and the ability to communicate coherently and correctly.
Do these things and the crisis will remain, but people involved in the crisis will be assured that someone is in charge and is mobilizing the right resources and right people to solve the problem.
Confidence is an attribute that every leader needs to embrace and to foster in others. But when confidence goes too far, it can become hubris.
Overdosing on confidence is easy to do. Jim Collins writes about the organizational side of hubris in his latest book, How the Mighty Fall. Stage 1 of organizational failure is “hubris born of success.” It “sets in when people become arrogant, regarding success virtually as an entitlement, and they lose sight of the true underlying factors that created success in the first place.”
Many leaders veer into hubristic behavior without realizing their shortcomings. We may be well intentioned, but we all suffer from a blind spots.So how can leaders know when their own confidence is verging on hubris? Here are some warning signs:
You make many decisions independently. No, dithering isn’t good. But bosses who make all of their own decisions without speaking to others are asking for trouble. How much do you ask for others’ input?
You can’t remember the last time you spoke to a customer. Failure to discover what people think about what you offer is not only foolhardy, it’s a recipe for failure in the future. If you think you’re “too busy” to connect with customers, that’s a warning sign.
How do organizations appear when they lack a sense of purpose?
Employees feel as if they are drifting on a raft without a rudder. They lack direction as well as motivation. They also feel underappreciated and disengaged. By contrast, when people feel purposeful they are engaged and they put forth the effort to succeed for themselves and by extension the entire organization.
Purposeful organizations apply intention to what they do. Organizations that lack purpose drift and drag and by doing so waste the skills and talents of their employees.
Everything in moderation. My late father, a physician, always emphasized that to his patients. While Dad was focusing more on what people ate or drank, he could easily have been talking about how people behave.
I was reminded of Dad’s advice when I read Jonah Lehrer’s fine essay in the Wall Street Journal discussing the “paradox of power,” a syndrome that turns people in authority into dictators. Lehrer quotes Dr. Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, who says, “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools.”
Executives who engage in abusive or coercive behavior of their subordinates may be showing that Lord Acton‘s statement — “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” — is not just a maxim, but reality. Leaders can get into trouble by subconsciously thinking it they have no limits on their power, even though they’d never say such a thing out loud. Such thinking is all too often reinforced by direct reports who subordinate themselves in order to curry favor with their bosses.
So what is a well-intentioned leader to do? My advice is to regularly reflect on these three questions.