Using your power to get more of what you value might lead to personal gain, but it’s the road to a poor leadership reputation. I’ve been reflecting on power recently – well, I guess I’ve been reflecting on it since I first took on a leadership role – but especially over the last couple of years.
We’ve seen the dynamics of power, politics and leadership shift in response to the pandemic. Who has power, what kind, and how they use it, continues to fascinate. The pandemic has certainly increased our familiarity with wide-ranging governmental powers: governments in most countries have increased control over our lives to the comfort of some and the dismay of others.
The relationship between autonomy and authority over these last two years has certainly been dynamic, as well as surprising and downright perplexing at times.
With the recent Novak Djokovic versus the Australian Government case, I was compelled to put pen to paper and my thoughts are summarised my January article in CEO Magazine. You can read more there, but spoiler alert, I’ve not weighed into whether decisions were right or wrong, but attempted to understand more about how power was used or misused in the process for making the decision, and where the leadership is. Or isn’t!
That relationship between autonomy and authority comes up frequently in coaching conversations, as leaders, concerned to avoid power’s overuses and abuses, develop a constructive relationship with their own power.
In this article my focus is on the practical: how can leaders get a constructive understanding of power, and use it to create value, not destroy people.
How you can develop a healthier relationship with your own power
The model of power that I find most useful is to start with three different perspectives:
- ‘I’ – my self-esteem is critical to how I decide to use my power
- ‘You’ – if I don’t understand what you value and feel empathy for you, I can’t influence you
- ‘We’ – the purpose of all human interaction is some form of sharing or collaboration.
When I grab power, I’m focused on my certainty about my own perspective. I ignore the importance of trust in relationships, I seek to dominate, dismiss your options, and overuse my status. ‘We’ is unbalanced, it’s hierarchical and potentially intimidatory.
Where there is an imbalance in role status, it’s almost always an over-use if not an abuse of power. This is what Dacher Keltner refers to as grabbing power.
We all have examples of this kind of behaviour, it’s the toxic behaviour that shuts us down. A coaching client mentioned feeling disempowered in a particular project: every time she makes a contribution, such as suggesting an idea or proposing an alternative, the project leader ‘shuts her down’.
He tells her that she is being critical of the team member who has most carriage of the work, and it isn’t welcome. She’s tried staying quiet, but then wonders why she’s even invited to the meeting. She’s tried using a different tone of voice, and making different kinds of suggestions. She’s convinced this is just a power play, and feels completely undermined.
If we want collaboration, and we generally think we do, power plays just get in the way.
On the other hand, when I grant power, I maintain a quiet confidence in my own perspective, yet focus on building trust with you by being curious about your perspective. That creates options. By focusing on identifying the shared purpose of our interactions, we find common ground. What a difference it makes to be involved with leaders who grant power.
When leaders use their power in this way, to grant it to others, they increase the value of their connections, of the solutions they create and of their own reputation.
What a difference it makes to work with leaders who do this. To be influential, you need to know what people value. When you prioritise the value of others’ perspectives, you wield power lightly and at the same time increase your influence.
To exert power and influence, you also need to know who controls access to what people value. This is where it can get trickier, depending on what it is that people value, who has the control, and how they choose to use it. It is where formal power and authority, such as that enacted by governments, becomes incredibly complex and difficult, as citizens have competing needs and values, and public opinion is a fickle beast.
Whatever the imperfections of legislation and regulation, and whatever the status of the decision-maker, power is best wielded with a service mindset. It shouldn’t be about seeking dominance, withholding resources or wielding punishment, but seeking to identify common ground, creating new options and reinforcing trust. That’s the service mindset that sees leaders grant, rather than grab power.
If you’re struggling to discover a more valuable relationship with your own leadership, don’t hesitate to reach out: I can help you with that. Click here to book a call with me today.