Leadership and Power

Written By Randy Hall  |  Leadership 


Leadership, for many, means power – power over the actions of others, power over the direction of the business, power over conversations and decisions, power over results. As people climb the corporate ladder and gain power, they begin to use it more and more to influence the results that they want. And then one day, if they are lucky, or if someone cares enough to help them learn it, they learn about the paradox between leadership and power. Exerting power does indeed influence results, but the impact is negative. Those who want to become successful leaders for the long term find that they essentially have to make a choice between leadership and power, between control and results.

A recent study by Leigh Plunkett Tost from University of Washington, Francesca Gino from Harvard and Richard P. Larrick of Duke takes a much closer look at the negative impact of power on achieving results and leading teams. Their research uncovered many negative impacts of power including the two related points below taken directly from their research:

  • power leads individuals to dominate social interactions and to engage in greater amounts of talking, which inhibits input from others.
  • leader power decreases perceptions of leader openness and diminishes team performance.

Essentially, what they learned from their research is that leaders who try to direct the outcome of a situation end up influencing the outcome to the point that they cause it be less successful. In our effort as leaders to drive results, we can easily end up driving the wrong ones. Teams that listen to all of the available ideas, communicate effectively and work collaboratively come up with better solutions. As leaders using position power, we make a mess of that successful process.

This doesn’t mean that we have to be power hungry dictators with evil intentions to compromise the team’s efforts. It’s often done with the best of intentions in mind. Usually we just want to help the team get to a great solution and, naturally, we have an idea what that great solution should look like or we probably wouldn’t have the job of leading that team. The problem comes when we help too much by dominating the conversation, exerting our influence or not listening well enough to competing ideas.

We have to remember that as the leader, people see our ideas as having more authority, more experience behind them and, because we are the boss, are the most likely to be implemented. Most people jump on the boss’s idea bandwagon pretty quickly and abandon the competing, and sometimes more effective, solution. People like being on the side of the winning solution.

So if we want to help the team, or even an individual, reach the best solution, and we don’t want to influence the process to the point of destroying it, what do we do? Well there are many ways for us to guide others without imposing our will. For starters try these:

  • Ask open-ended questions that don’t convey your preferences or ideas. Things like “what will help us solve this problem effectively and also prevent it from happening again?” “What if there were no limits to money or time, would we think about this differently?” “Who has thoughts that we haven’t heard yet on this subject?”
  • Challenge them if they are settling for an easy fix or a quick but less than optimal approach. Use questions like “have we considered all of our possible options here?” Or “who else might have some information or experience we need to make the best decision on this subject?” These kinds of interactions also position us as someone who cares about the best solution and not the one we come up with on our own.
  • Push the group to come up with great solutions or ideas and then support the ones they settle on. If you end up changing their ideas into your own version of their ideas it simply tells them that next time it doesn’t matter what they think, you’re going to do what you want anyway. If that happens, count on solving most of the problems your self from here on out.

As leaders we have the power to help others become their best. We lose that when we want them to simply duplicate our best. We work hard to hire, coach, train and develop people who can help our organization move into it’s better future. Let them do that. Let them do it with all of the energy and engagement that they can muster and understand that your leadership enables them, your power competes with them.

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