4 Principles for Using Your Leadership Power

Power“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Great men are almost always bad men.”
~ Lord Acton

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.

About Randy Conley

Randy is the Vice President of Client Services & Trust Practice Leader for The Ken Blanchard Companies. He works with clients around the globe helping them design & deliver training and consulting solutions that build trust in the workplace and oversees Blanchard's client delivery operations. He has been named a Top 100 Thought Leader in Trustworthy Business Behavior by Trust Across America. Randy holds a Masters Degree in Executive Leadership from the University of San Diego and enjoys spending time with his family, bike riding, and playing golf. You can follow Randy on Twitter @RandyConley where he shares thoughts on leadership and trust.
This entry was posted in Leadership, Power, Servant Leadership. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to 4 Principles for Using Your Leadership Power

  1. carolburbank says:

    I agree, the ego does crave power! And servant leaders are often the most humane. But I wonder, how do we learn to control the ego in leadership, so we can move to more eco-centric leadership, as Dana Ardi says in her book, The Fall of the Alphas? We see the need, but what are the first steps to getting there?

    • Randy Conley says:

      Great questions Carol. A few things come to mind. The first is to recognize the temptation power brings and put some intentional thought behind how you want to use power in your leadership circles. I also think it’s important to have truth-tellers in your life, trusted associates who are willing to call you out when you get off track and will partner with you to help you stay on track.

      Thanks for adding your insights to the discussion!

      Randy

      • carolburbank says:

        I agree that ensuring we are surrounded by truth tellers, and being conscious, are very important. But forgive a coach and consultant her cynicism — it’s so much harder in the pragmatic world to recognize the temptations power brings as temptations as opposed to entitlements! And much as we do our best to be conscious, there are stories and attitudes and ideas we associate with our identities and our leadership styles and our sense of authenticity that simply feel normal, and so we are not aware of their results (negative), seeing them as “who we are.” So a truth-teller, yes, but we need to be brave enough to hear the whole truth, and that takes a kind of leadership I think is very rare, unfortunately. What do you think?

      • Randy Conley says:

        Great points Carol. I agree that it’s much easier to only hear the partial truth…the part that fits with our current perception of how we believe we should behave, what we’re entitled to, what we’ve earned, etc. That’s why I believe it’s critically important for leaders to have a crystal clear understanding of their values and to operate from a position of authenticity and integrity. It’s like the old saying of “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” If you aren’t clear on your core values, you’ll be easy prey for the temptations of power. Even if you are clear on your values, the lure of power is extremely strong and takes constant vigilance.

        My best,

        Randy

      • carolburbank says:

        Authenticity — that’s really important. I’d love it if you checked out my writing about authenticity — as a buzzword, a process, a way of living — and how it’s problematic when it becomes ego-based! My blog, Lead Me On: leadershipspirit@wordpress.com

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  4. Randy,

    Great post, thoughts, and question to answer. Do I need to be in power? Probably not. If wrapped in purpose or working toward a higher cause that I compassionately believed in, then yes I would like to have it. Getting the momentum, getting others engaged, and leaving something people can continue to pull forward… all would be wonderful.

    I grew up on a farm and one thing about farmers is that they have little power over how the crops turn out and how good the year will be. Nonetheless, they plant. In this, there is a guide for all of us. We need to continue to plant the seeds for future growth and betterment of our business and neighborhood communities.

    Thanks! Jon

    • Randy Conley says:

      Hi Jon. I love your farm analogies! I always wished that I had grown up on a farm because it seems to present so many life lessons (if we’re willing to learn them).

      Thanks for adding to the conversation. I appreciate you.

      Randy

  5. I do crave power. The reason is that I feel that I can do the most good with power. However, I define power as influence, not position. I would recommend that along with your question of “do you need power” we should ask “how do we define power”.

    The downside to this is that I think most people who crave power start with the same sentiment: I can do the most good. The issue comes when what is most good is debatable. What I may view as good, others may view as frivolous or even evil.

    I think you touched on a great topic. It definately has made me think about why I want power and how I should act when I have it. I love your number 2 above: Followership is just as important, if not more so, than leadership. Learn to follow, then learn to lead.

    • Randy Conley says:

      Hi Anthony. Your addition of how we define power is an excellent one, and power definitely translates into influence. Like you, I think most people start off viewing power as a tool that allows them to accomplish good works, but if not used carefully and wisely, it can quickly becoming a tool to serve your own purposes and needs.

      Thank you for adding to the discussion.

      Randy

      • Gordon White says:

        Hi Randy and Anthony,
        Influence is what power does, but what is power?
        Gordon
        @valueconflict

      • Randy Conley says:

        Hi Gordon,

        I’d love to hear your thoughts on the answer to that question. Intriguing!

        Randy

      • I think you may be looking at positional power – a power bestowed upon you by rank. I don’t think that creates influence as much as it creates submission. People go along not because they are persuaded internally, but because they feel they have to. I think that real power is influence. As I gain influence, I gain power. Not the other way around.

        You did make me think critically about my position. So thank you for the question.

      • Randy Conley says:

        To tag on to Anthony’s thoughts…we’ve been doing some research into the effect power has on an individual’s state of motivation. Our research is showing (not surprisingly) that a leader’s use of coercive or positional power has the biggest influence in a person having an amotivational outlook (diminished desire to participate). You can’t use hard power in trying to influence people. It will work in the short term because people will fearfully comply, but it won’t build long term engagement and success.

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  10. William says:

    I love this post, it makes me think, why I always feel like I was born to be a leader. I know that I always have to work with that part of me that likes to be in control of stuff. Or be in power. Thank for this reminder, and God bless

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