Power - the enemy of leadership?

Alexander the Great; Harvey Weinstein (image credit: Georges Biard)

Power and leadership go hand in hand – we look to those who have power and assume that they are also leaders. But if we take it for granted that leadership is what we do rather than a position we hold, does it become clearer that leadership and power are actually highly opposed?

Hubristic stories of senior individuals have fascinated us since we first started recognising leaders – from Alexander the Great two and a half thousand years ago to Harvey Weinstein yesterday – have always drawn our attention as we find the narrative of a great leader brought low by human failings to be irresistible.

But look closely at many of these stories and we see that what these individuals were exercising is perhaps not leadership but power – their authority built more on what they could do rather than how they could do it.

Consider some definitions. Power is described as:

  • The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events; and physical strength and force exerted by something or someone.

Of course, there is an entire industry devoted to describing leadership, but at its most fundamental level, the Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as:

  • Capacity to lead, and the act or an instance of leading

On the face of it, and to the inexperienced leader, the two may not appear that different, but in juxtaposition it is clear where there are differences:

  • Power demands to be heard, leadership is the capacity to listen

  • Power is stated authority, leadership is earned authority

  • Power is answered to, leadership is answerable

  • Power is not questioned, leadership is questioning

  • Power is followed, leadership requires followership

The fall from grace of senior leaders is often coupled with a peak of self-regard. There is often a failing to observe the limits of what they can or can’t do, what they do and do not know. Perhaps this has characterised their leadership behaviours throughout their careers, and it is just that they reach the limits of such a single-toned leadership style; or perhaps they have become removed from a more outward-facing leadership style which initially grew their success, caught up in the mechanisms and structures of leadership rather than the reality of positive leadership behaviours.

Recognising this shift from leadership to power in ourselves is challenging because it is gradual, and easy to rationalise. So how can we spot it in ourselves?

  • When you start to believe in your own legend, reset your self-regard

  • When you stop hearing people challenge you, seek out those who see the world differently

  • When every demand you make is met, ask yourself if you would fulfill it for someone else

Power is one of the tools that is available to leaders as they seek to engage, implement and create success. But the danger is that it can be a tool that becomes too easy to use and one which gradually subverts the other leadership behaviours which create a fully rounded leader. When power becomes the most apparent route to action, leadership is dead.

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#leadership #power

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