Power accompanies leadership. No matter how lofty or humble your title, whether you manage 3 people or 3,000, if you lead a girl scout troop or you’re the CEO of a multi-million dollar company, you will be faced with choices on how to use your power.
You’re probably familiar with the above quote from Lord Acton. Unfortunately, there is much truth in his quote and one only has to look at the news headlines for the latest example of a leader who has misused power for his/her own personal gain.
A good friend of mine who has spent his entire career developing other leaders once shared a keen observation with me. He said that people who need to be in power probably shouldn’t be. His learning was that those people who craved power, who had an inordinate desire to be in control, were the ones most likely to use power in unhealthy ways.
Of course my friend’s statement caused me to wrestle with the concept of power. Do I need to be in power? If so, why? Is it because of ego, status, or enjoyment of the privileges it affords? Is it a bad thing to want to be in power? Would I be unhappy or unfulfilled if I wasn’t in power? One question begets the next.
As I’ve pondered this question, the following ideas have become clearer to me:
1. The best use of power is in service to others. Being a servant leader, rather than a self-serving leader, means giving away my power to help other people achieve their personal goals, the objectives of the organization, and to allow them to reach their full expression and potential as individuals. I love the servant leadership example of Jesus. When two of his disciples came to him seeking positions of power and authority, he chastised them and challenged them to remember that “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.” (Mt. 20:26-27) One of the paradoxes of leadership is that by placing others before ourselves, and using our power to serve, rather than dominate, actually brings us more power, respect, commitment and loyalty.
2. Followership is just as important, if not more so, than leadership. Learning to be a good follower is an essential component of being a wise leader who uses power appropriately. A person who learns to submit to the authority of others, collaborate with teammates, and sees first-hand the good and bad effects of the use of power, will have a greater appreciation for how power should be used in relationships. We can all probably think of examples of people who were bestowed leadership positions without ever being a follower, who then went on a “power trip” and showed just how ill-prepared they were to handle the power given them. Followership is the training ground for leadership.
3. The ego craves power. My leadership experiences have taught me that I need to be on guard to keep my ego in check. The ego views power as the nectar of the gods, and if leaders aren’t careful, their ego will intoxicate itself with power. In Ken Blanchard’s Servant Leadership program, he does an “Egos Anonymous” exercise that helps leaders come to grips with the power of the ego to make them self-serving leaders rather than servant leaders. Effective leadership starts on the inside and that means putting the ego in its proper place.
4. Power is held in trust. The power I have as a leader is something entrusted to me, both from my boss who put me in this position and by my followers who have consented to follow my lead. This power is not mine to keep. I’m a temporary steward of this power as long as I’m in my leadership role and it could be taken away at anytime should something drastic change in the relationship with my boss or followers. We’re all familiar with “consent of the governed,” the phrase that describes the political theory that a government’s legitimate and moral right to use state power over citizens can only be granted by the consent of the citizens themselves. The same concept applies to organizational leadership, and the minute our people no longer support our leadership, we have a serious problem.
So, do I need to be in power? I don’t think I need it to be fulfilled in my work, but it’s a question I haven’t yet fully answered. Do I like having power? Yes, I do. It allows me to help others in significant and positive ways. But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that I struggle with the shadow side of power and the temptation to use it to feed my ego.
Let me ask you the question: Do you need to be in power? Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts.