Rosabeth Moss Kanter once wrote that "Power is America's last dirty word. It is easier to talk about money, and much easier to talk about sex, than it is to talk about power."[i]
Power and politics are often equated but they are not the same thing although deeply related. Politics often relates to the influencing strategies and tactics within governments, which are usually quite contentious particularly at the federal level today. In the American democratic construct, there are two opposing sides trying to gain the upper hand to impose their point of view through vehicles not always healthy for the nation. So in many respects, power by its association with politics remains a very dirty word in this 21st century. Of course, there are still lots of power plays in many organizational settings that are detrimental perpetuating this sinister view of people who use power.
All through my executive career, I always felt that power was this negative dark force never really grasping that it was the interwoven fabric of leadership. This latter view did not come clear to me until my role change into an executive professor teaching strategic leadership where I had to study more in depth the role of power in leadership. My intent is to bring forward some of those insights such that power is seen in a more objective light out in the open. Understanding power as this interwoven fabric of leadership enables you to elevate your leadership capability to a higher level of sophistication.
Now in my role as a leadership mentor, I can really see how the lack of understanding of power often reduces the overall effectiveness of a leader. There was a fair amount written on power when organizations were more hierarchical. Out of that grew an assortment of definitions, but I would like to take a twist.
My view is that power controls the flow of energy in an entity whether a work group, large organization, company, government or even a society. With this perspective, it becomes clear that power is the interwoven fabric of leadership since the essence of leadership involves influencing people to follow a direction or path that will create a flow of organizational energy. On this positive side, the levers of power can unleash motivation, enhance productivity, and increase value generation. Zaleznik understood that "Leadership inevitably requires using power to influence thoughts and actions of people."[ii]
What is important for a leader is to recognize that power can expand this flow of energy or reduce the flow. It can gather momentum in a direction, or different flows of energy can run smack dab into each other diffusing and even stopping the overall flow. Thus, power is really a neutral concept. As Gardner points out, "The significant questions are: What do they use to gain it? How do they exercise it? To what ends do they exercise it?"[iii]
The key for a leader is understanding the various controls of organizational energy. They really break down into two categories: formal and informal. In a business setting, the formal controls are the legitimate authorities the organization bestows upon a position such as supervisor, manager, or executive. In the end of the day, these authorities provide the ability to reward or punish.
While the formal control mechanisms are much more direct, the nature of the influence tends to be extrinsic often focusing on lower level needs such as security in the sense of keeping one's job. Positive rewards can reach higher level needs including social positioning and ego. Unfortunately, often the flow of energy in formal controls stems from obedience rather than a natural flow driven by belief in the directional pathway.
Informal control mechanisms derive from the compelling attributes of an advocated direction. The literature gets into concepts like referent power where the leader is trusted and respected or associate power based upon who you know and who knows you. Expert power can be very compelling as it is based on highly valued knowledge and skills. A derivative of expert is the power of one's vision and ideas.
An important point that I often argue is that a leader does not have to be a manager. A manager has the formal control mechanisms, but anyone can wield informal control mechanisms regardless of position in the organization. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter has pointed out there are various strategies to enhance one's informal influence. The leader needs to be there and have a presence which leads to the power of speaking out, putting one's ideas into the organizational conversation. Power comes through persistence. Power also comes through partnering.
This last point is quite potent. Power is not isolated to an individual. Teams, coalitions, cliques, large sub groups, etc. can exert substantial control over the flow of energy in an organization. Leaders who don't think in terms of the organization's energy flow tend to rely on themselves. Informal power often comes from thoughtfully influencing and organizing teams, coalitions, and so forth. As mentioned previously, referent power is a source of forming these coalitions.
The sophisticated leader needs to understand that any organization can have conflicts relative to the flow of energy. The leader needs to think through the different styles of addressing these conflicts. Too often the unsophisticated leader ends up avoiding the conflict seeing it as that dark force. Those with significant formal authorities often win through domination. Sometimes that is needed to really right the ship, but often domination builds pent up negative organizational energy that has lasting impact. Compromise has its place particularly to minimize loses. Sometimes the fight is not beneficial that can lead to accommodation. The more powerful style is pursuing collaboration seeking a solution of mutual benefit.
Many times the opportunity is to build up the energy flow of the organization. A leader should intelligently consider the different power control options given the situation. All the basics of leadership come into play such as understanding people's needs and the value proposition the leader is offering them. What are the potential outcomes and which choices will enhance the overall flow of organizational energy? Thus, as Pfeffer points out "An important source of power is the match between style, skill, and capacities, and what is required by the situation."[iv]
This leads us to reinforce strength based leadership. Leadership can and should flow to where the strengths reside to enhance this energy flow. Maxwell advocates that "People naturally follow leaders stronger than themselves."[v] The important point here is that those possessing leadership strengths change based on the situation. For those with formal authorities, delegation becomes an effective control tool to tap into these strengths within his/her team.
Having this deeper understanding of power can truly enhance the effectiveness of a leader. At the same time, a lack of understanding of the appropriate use of power can impede organizational effectiveness and when used in a narcissistic fashion can significantly destroy organizational energy.
The leader with formal controls must address devious tactics seen under his/her purview. Infighting can lead to very sinister behavior like taking no prisoners. Those who try to divide and conquer also destroy organizational energy. It can be as subtle as excluding the opposition in the organizational discussions. Certainly, any leader that is destroying organization effectiveness for their own personal gain must be dealt with quickly.
Learning is always critical for a leader. Ultimately, one can develop individual attributes that will become sources of power. Certainly, focus is a key attribute that leads to developing potent directional pathways. Not everyone will agree, so having a sensitivity to others provides a foundation to tolerate conflict and effectively deal with it. This will require some flexibility that in many cases may require submerging one's ego and getting along. As previously noted, persistence can be quite effective, which requires energy and physical stamina.[vi]
Leaders are distinguished by their desire to create and build something of value with a heartfelt interest in helping others. Power is the interwoven fabric that enables the influence to build the necessary organizational energy to create and build that value. You should embrace power being fully cognizant that used unwisely can be abusive to your organization.
[i] [i] Kanter, "Power Failure in Management Circuits," Harvard Business Review, (July-August 1979), p. 65.
[ii] Zaleznik, "Managers and Leaders: Are they really different?" Harvard Business Review (March-April 1992) pp. 126
[iii] Gardner, On Leadership, New York Free Press, 1990, pp 55-57
[iv] [iv] Pfeffer, Managing with Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations, Harvard Business School Press, 1992, p. 77.
[v] Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow them and People will follow You, Nelson Press, 1998.
[vi] Pfeffer, Managing with Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations, Harvard Business School Press, 1992, pp. 165-185.