Managing Power at The Top

By: Joanna E. Starek

I remember one of my first CEO coaching assignments. The executive was accomplished but overly confident. Pondering how to make an impact with him, I called a mentor who had advised CEOs for more than 30 years. He suggested helping the CEO “figure out how to manage all that power.” At that time, I thought the comment was interesting, but I did not fully understand the magnitude of the advice being shared with me until later.

In essence, he was saying that just because someone is given a title, it does not mean they know how to wield the power associated with the position. Since then, I have seen some CEOs manage the iconic nature of the job exceptionally well—I have also seen an equal number buckle under the strain. They fail the company and lose their jobs, their health, their reputations, and sometimes their families. Managing influence and power at the top is not a given, yet the ability to do this well will be a make-or-break factor for the leader and the organization they represent.

To help CEOs sort out whether they are managing power effectively, it is helpful to understand the ways power is mismanaged—some of which are obvious and others being more subtle and difficult to recognize. At one end of the continuum is the leader who blatantly abuses power. At the opposite end, which is also detrimental, is the leader who shuns the mantle of power and fails to make a difference. Most fall somewhere in the middle.

Abuse of Power

Blatant abuse of power by a leader is extreme and relatively easy to recognize. These leaders put personal gain ahead of the common good and use their title, money, and influence to dominate others. These are the Machiavellian power players. They dare you to challenge them and scare you into submission. There are only winners and losers.

Unfortunately, this style can be effective for longer than we’d like. It gets results because people comply out of a sense of fear. The layperson does not have the means to fight back, and it takes time for collective action against these leaders to galvanize. With time, most power players will overstep their bounds, but often only after causing a great deal of damage.

Ironically, many of these leaders are not aware of how far they are down this path. They justify their behavior as necessary to get results and lose track of their impact. Signs that CEOs are moving toward this extreme: (1) the executives use anger and frustration as one of their central tools for getting work done, (2) people are afraid to give them feedback, (3) they do not check themselves on a regular basis, and/or (4) they use bluster and smoke screens to avoid dealing with hard issues.

Failure to Understand Positional Power

More common than the executives who blatantly abuse power are the leaders who fail to fully comprehend the power associated with their roles. When people rise in an organization, they acquire what is called positional power. There is a level of authority ascribed to their role that needs to be recognized and managed. For example, CEOs must manage the platform that comes with the role in addition to performing the daily demands of the job.

Employees are not just following the person—they are following the office of the CEO. When executives fail to recognize the power afforded them due to their role, they will overestimate or underestimate their personal influence. Executives who overestimate personal influence can start to believe they are special and fail to develop true followership. Conversely, executives who underestimate the power of their positions do not understand the magnitude of their impact on others. They try to act as if they are just like everyone else. As a result, they might believe they are having a candid conversation with a direct report, while the employee is interpreting the same conversation as threatening. In both situations, executives are failing at the central aspect of their role, which is leadership.

The art of leadership is learning to navigate this delicate balance. Great leaders have self-awareness and an understanding of how to use the power of their position to galvanize others. They also recognize that true influence is built over time by delivering results, remaining grounded in core values and purpose, and by surrounding themselves with a strong team.

Failure to Own the Power of Your Position

Finally, there are the leaders who hesitate to use the power of their position. This is the burden of the overly humble. You hand them the keys to the kingdom, and they fail to seize the moment. These leaders make incremental gains, but they often fail to garner the necessary influence to truly lead at scale. They may shoulder too much of the burden themselves or resist making the difficult call.

These executives often have negative associations with the word power. They interpret the word to mean power over another versus having a more positive association, such as empowering others or using power for good. Ironically, this results in a failure of leadership. To make an impact, these executives need to redefine their relationship to power so that they can feel good about owning it. Power itself is weighty, but in and of itself it does not have moral value. Power is neutral. It is how you manage it that gives it moral weight. Used well, power is a force for good. Poorly managed, it can lead to disastrous consequences.

Balancing Personal and Professional Power

Learning to manage personal and professional power is a core skill that must be mastered by executives. The leaders we admire are those who have learned this balancing act. You know who they are the moment you are around them. They emanate confidence, and you trust them. These individuals first learned to manage themselves and, over time, to manage their teams and their organizations. Ultimately, the great ones have figured out how to leverage the office of the CEO to unleash their vision and mobilize employees to achieve where others have failed. They often tend to make the world a better place at the same time.

Learning to use power for good is a noble endeavor. It is a path fraught with barriers, yet it is one of the most inspiring journeys we can take as human beings.

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