The weight of leadership responsibility today is astounding. We have to achieve ambitious results while maintaining healthy workplaces all in the midst of economic, emotional, and environmental crises. It’s natural for leaders in this position to tighten the reins of control and hold on ever tighter to power, but the fascinating paradox of leadership is that the only way for us to truly grow our power is to share it.
What is power?
As I share in my new book, LEAD TOGETHER: Stop Squirreling Away Power and Build a Better Team, power is quite simply the capacity to get things done. Whether your team members need to turn on a light switch, complete a project, or close a deal, they need power to make it happen. Power can come from formal authority, such as decision-making rights. And it can be informal, such as knowledge and relationships. Having more power as a team means having fewer limits to what you can achieve.
What is power balance?
Without realizing it, leaders who spend all day answering “quick questions,” solving problems they wish others would solve, or complaining that it’s lonely at the top suffer from poor power distribution. They carry too much power while the people who report to them do not carry enough.
Holding on to too much power is a burden for leaders. And it tends to have a negative impact on everyone else as well. Research shows that feeling powerless produces stress, withdrawal, and even health problems. Feeling powerful increases our proactivity, creativity, and willingness to speak our minds. And having too much power impairs our ability to feel empathy and make sound decisions. Balanced power – a state where no one has too little or too much – is best for our mental wellbeing and for the wellbeing of our organizations.
How can we distribute power well?
The first step to becoming the kind of organization where power flows and grows is to embrace a new model of leadership. This shift starts when we release the “power-over” paradigm where a small number of people use their power to control everyone else. Instead, we can adopt what the scholar Mary Parker Follet called “power-with” leadership. In this model, leaders use their power to grow the power of all those around them. In this way, their team members can achieve more, and the company’s collective capacity expands.
In LEAD TOGETHER, I explore how creating a flourishing power-with workplace relies on two strategies: (1) growing individual power and (2): minimizing power concentration.
- Grow individual power: Rather than simply getting things done, power-with leaders focus on growing the capacity of each individual they work with. Their primary objective is for each person to become increasingly capable of contributing to the goals of the organization. In particular, they focus on the 4Cs of individual power:
a) Context: Power-with leaders make sure that their team members have all the necessary information and education they need to make good decisions. This means sharing history, providing up-to-date data, and checking to make sure the information they share isn’t just available but also understandable.
b) Competence: These leaders look at every challenge as an opportunity to grow their team members’ skills. Rather than giving answers, they ask questions. Rather than waiting to assign work until people can execute perfectly, they coach people to take on work that is outside of their comfort zones.
c) Connections: While many leaders are eager to answer their team members’ questions and be their primary source of support, power-with leaders deliberately expand their team’s social resources. They make introductions and encourage relationships that help people become increasingly self-reliant rather than dependent on any one person.
d) Confidence: Aside from growing their team’s knowledge, skills, and resources, power-with leaders also help people recognize just how much they can achieve. They give people frequent positive feedback, show them the impact of their efforts, and help them reflect on how much they have learned so they are more ready and willing to learn even more.
- Minimize power concentration: While growing individual power is a valuable strategy in and of itself, a balance of power also relies on preventing too much power from getting stuck in one role or within one small group. With smart checks and balances in place, employees feel a greater sense of safety, show more willingness to use the power they have, and leaders make more thoughtful decisions. Power-with organizations especially benefit from these four power checks:
a) Information: Unless there are legal or ethical reasons to keep information private, power-with teams make information transparent and easy-to-understand. For example: financial reports, role descriptions, goals, priorities, decision-making criteria, and recordings of board meetings.
b) Access: Leaders in power-with companies constantly question whether there are barriers to access they can eliminate. For example: cut unnecessary requirements from job postings, advertise all roles internally, and host leadership office hours so anyone can ask questions and build relationships with people in positions of authority.
c) Decision-making: To limit power concentration, decision-making rights should lie with people closest to their work. For high-stakes decisions, it often makes sense to involve two decision-makers and a tie breaker, rotate decision-making roles, or use a consent decision-making model where all team members have the power to veto a proposal.
d) Rigor: While power-with organizations generally have few restrictions and rules, the policies they do create tend to be highly standardized. For example: hiring, benefits, promotions, terminations. In this way, no one receives special treatment or can be “above the law.”
In short: If we want workplaces that are agile and creative enough to overcome the most unexpected of obstacles, where everyone is able and eagerly willing to contribute, and where people’s capacity to get things done keeps growing, then we want workplaces where power is balanced. Not only does sharing power in this way make it possible for leaders to achieve their goals today, it also serves as a catalyst for their collective power to keep on growing.
Written by Tania Luna.
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