Let’s Talk About Power
I’m writing this in the middle of the U.S. Senate’s impeachment trial of President Trump. While I know better than to blog about politicians these days, it’s no accident that power and leadership are on my mind.
When I’m coaching leaders, I am fundamentally supporting their ability to wield power more effectively. As this world unfolds as it’s unfolding, I feel a mounting urgency for us to get our arms around this thing called power. As I deepen my own understanding of leadership, I also have a growing clarity about what “effective” power is (and isn’t). I think most of us have our own sense of that, yet I’m amazed how little critical attention we seem to pay to something that so profoundly affects us all.
I think this failure of examination is a dire problem. The more we hold power in shadow, the more unconscious – and potentially unconscionable – its use becomes. Collectively and individually, we’re being called to grapple with power in more intentional, productive, and unifying ways. Life and lives depend on it. I think the first step is to get clear about what effective power actually is, so I’d like to share my own, always-evolving, construct of leadership. I share it not as the One And Right model, but as a starting place for exploration and dialogue.
Effective power has five essential and interlocking components: awareness, agency, humility, morality and skill.
Effective leaders ‘own’ their power. They acknowledge that they have it and why they have it. They understand the source(s), responsibilities and limitations of it. I find that most leaders have real blind spots here. Many take power as a given, never really investigating either how they came to have power or what it means for them and others. As a result, they don’t tend to question their motives, methods or impact in a holistic way… or at all. Others take power as a “not-given,” as something they either don’t have or don’t want to be associated with. I can’t tell you how many leaders (mostly women, I’m afraid) have said to me, “Oh, I don’t think of myself as having power. I like to think of myself as everyone’s equal.” Distancing ourselves from power only increases the odds that we’ll squander or misuse it. Power disowned is like an ungrounded electrical wire: it will either block energy or render it dangerous.
If you’re a leader, it’s not enough to be aware that you possess power. Effectiveness demands that you understand who you are as a power-wielder, in both your strengths and your shortcomings. One of the greatest vulnerabilities of power is its tendency to stunt your empathy. So effective power requires a continual and honest reckoning of what motivates your actions; how your actions affect the people and world around you; whose voice(s) your own might be crowding out; whose voice(s) your own could amplify. An essential tool for that self-reckoning is listening to those who bear your impact. (See “Humility,” below)
The term “agency” refers to the ability to take action and spur others to do the same. We all know brilliant, highly placed leaders who can’t galvanize those around them. These people may inhabit the seat of power, but lacking the component of ‘agency,’ their leadership has a stagnating effect. I’ve seen organizations suffer a great deal under leaders who were good and smart people, but couldn’t get things to move.
We can also point to the opposite problem – when someone’s agency is strong, but divorced from the other components. The potential damage there is incalculable. Think the Enron scandal, the mortgage crisis, political corruption… These crises came to pass because people in power were capable of great agency, but lacked the humility or morality that assures ethical action.
We certainly don’t have to look as far away as Washington or Wall Street to see the devastating effects of too much or too little leadership agency. They play out every day in our communities, families and workplaces.
Leadership is an awesome responsibility, because leaders, whether formal or informal, directly shape the lives of those around them. Effective leaders are humble in the face of that responsibility. They respect their potential for impact and use it with care. They understand that leading is a position of service which also carries profound privilege. That’s no small contradiction to manage.
Through self-reflection and external feedback, effective leaders humbly cop both to their strengths and to their limitations. Humility requires curiosity: the willingness to not know and to admit to not knowing. So humble leaders surround themselves with people who know more than they do, see around corners that they can’t, approach the world from a different angle, raise the inconvenient red flags, and call them out on their b.s. Humble leaders don’t just have those people near; they seek and treasure their counsel.
The world is heating up. Resources are becoming scarcer. Tribalism and inequality are on the rise. In this context, I believe that a leader’s power is effective only if it is exercised on behalf of something greater than greed, advancement or glory. By “morality,” I don’t mean an adherence to some standard of personal virtue, but rather a dedication to more transcendent principles, like justice, equity and sustainability. Maybe your moral sense is grounded in a particular spiritual tradition, or a cultural ethos, or a personal code. But regardless of what guides you, I don’t think you can be a truly effective leader if you’re not leading toward a more just and compassionate world in some real way, no matter how small.
It’s not enough simply to have a moral code. Effective leaders also demonstrate the courage to act on that code. They say and do the difficult, unpopular thing on behalf of the greater good. Sadly, morality and courage don’t always go together. Think of the religious leader who covers up sexual abuse, or the government official who hijacks public trust for personal gain, or the boss who asks you to fudge the numbers. Very likely, they all know what’s right, but they lack the courage of their convictions.
Happily, we also know what morality in action looks like. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the wake of the 2019 mass shooting comes to mind. So do climate activist Greta Thunberg, San Juan’s Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and the many U.S. civil servants who have put their careers at risk to testify before Congress. You may not agree with their positions, but all of them share a clear sense of the greater good and the courage to risk their necks for it.
The effective use of power demands more than character. It also demands a broad spectrum of skills, such as:
- envisioning a compelling future that coalesces action
- creating cultures and systems that move the mission and people toward that envisioned future
- being unflinching about values and priorities
- understanding how the enterprise affects and is affected by disparate forces
- heading with integrity into the winds of conflict, change and challenge
- making it safe enough for people to feel secure, while making it uncomfortable enough to keep people reaching for more
- taking good enough care of people that they want to follow
- taking good enough care of oneself to provide a sound lead.
If you are someone in or with power, you will never stop being called to grow in awareness, agency, humility, morality and skill. If you are to be effective, you will keep saying yes to the call to growth.
What about you?
- Which aspects of this model of power feel on-target to you, and why?
- With which aspects do you take issue? What feels off or missing to you?
- What’s your model of power? Who is someone whose use of power you admire, and what does that reveal about your own sense of the components of effective power?
- Can you point to leaders, either in your own life or in public life, who excel in some aspect of power, but fall short in others? What are the practical ramifications of that unevenness?
- Whatever your construct of effective power, where do you feel strongest and where do you feel most in need of strengthening?
- How would your greatest critics answer the previous question?
- What compelling motivation do you have for further honing the way you wield power?
Want to explore working with me to hone and harness your own power?
I think you have some really compelling ideas here. My core model of Power cames from George Peabody who abstractly defined power as the “ability to do or to get done what you want.” Putting in effort such as coreecion or creating conflict about the getting of what you want reduces the power equation. Accomplishing a lot with little effort shows more power. The second point he made, which you deal with in Agency, is that “power is embed in systems” defined by role or knowledge of the system. Also, I think your model is a granular extrapolation of McClelland’s Human Motivation Theory which a leaders maturation in dimensions power, achievement, and affilation. As leaders mature they view power not as self serving tool, but as a tool in service of the organization they lead.
John, thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my post! Appreciate your connecting the dots of my content to the theorists. Hope all is well in your world.