“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 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 Randy Conley, Vice President of Professional Services and Trust Practice Leader at The Ken Blanchard Companies, who has spent his entire career developing other leaders once shared a keen observation with him. 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 Conley's friend’s statement caused him to wrestle with the concept of power. Does Conley 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 Conley be unhappy or unfulfilled if he wasn’t in power? One question begets the next.
As Conley pondered this question, the following ideas have become clearer to him:
1. The best use of power is in service to others. Being a servant leader, rather than a self-serving leader, means giving away your power to help other people achieve their personal goals, the objectives of the organisation, and to allow them to reach their full expression and potential as individuals. 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. Conley's leadership experiences have taught him that he need to be on guard to keep his 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 Conley has as a leader is something entrusted to him, both from his boss who put him in this position and by his followers who have consented to follow his lead. This power is not Conley's to keep. He is a temporary steward of this power as long as he is in his leadership role, it could be taken away at anytime should something drastic change in the relationship with his 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 organisational leadership, and the minute our people no longer support our leadership, we have a serious problem.
So, does Conley need to be in power? He doesn't think he needs it to be fulfilled in his work, but it’s a question he hasn’t yet fully answered. Does Conley like having power? Yes, he does. It allows him to help others in significant and positive ways. But if he's being honest, he admits that he struggles with the shadow side of power and the temptation to use it to feed his ego.
About the authors:
Randy Conley Vice President of Professional Services and Trust Practice Leader at The Ken Blanchard Companies is the author of the Leading with Trust blog.
First published on leadingwithtrust.com
30 March 2014