Wield Power Gracefully When Making Decisions (HBR)

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.

Decide when to lay off power. It’s true that sometimes you can be more effective by not using your authority. Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE, once told the New York Times he had to tell people, “You’re doing it my way,” between 7 and 12 times annually. If he did this only three times, the organization would lack discipline; if he did it 18 times, good executives would flee. As long as the decisions your people make are consistent with the mission and values of your organization, allowing them to make their own decisions increases your own authority and credibility.

Know when to use power. While you want to push decision making to the front lines, there will be times when you need to make a big decision. Making that call will mean you have to exert power. So make the decision and communicate it so that everyone understands its implications and what they need to do to support it.

Follow through with power. Decision-making is the first step. It is up to the leader to bring people together to implement it. When organizations fail, it’s often because people end up doing their own thing — instead of the right thing. They become distracted by competing priorities and fail to follow through on their commitments as a consequence. Leaders who use their power to make sure decisions are executed in a timely fashion ensure that the initiative won’t lose focus or momentum.

The concept of power carries with it lots of baggage. Anyone who has worked in a large or mid-size organization has likely experienced the wrong end of a decisive power struggle. Likely you, your team, or your boss has lost a major argument and as a result received rough treatment by the victor. Power has been used to punish you and as a result you may be wary of using it yourself.

If you are intending to lead, however, use it you must. Remember the bitterness you felt when it was used vindictively against you, so that when you wield power you will do it with a degree of authority coupled with grace. Acting magnanimously is the soft side of power, one that establishes your humanity and enables you to lead with even greater authority.

First posted on HBR.org 6/29/2010