Good leaders build a powerful team by sharing power, not by building themselves up (falsely) by imagining they can hoard power personally.
I see leaders who imagine that they have more power than they actually do, and don’t really distinguish between the fact that their role has power vs. that they are powerful personally. A telling behavior to decide what camp an executive is in is to see how they treat people when they meet them. Especially, people in lower level jobs (or waiters). The most common types are:
I have met many of these power executives, but I am thinking of one in particular who exemplified this ugly behavior. He was a C-level direct report to the CEO of a Fortune 50 company. He was meeting me and my peers, who were at the time C-level direct reports to the CEO of a Fortune 2000 company. It was immediately clear that he saw us as way below him on the food chain. I remember thinking when I met him: Wow, you are trying really hard to come across as a big, scary executive. I wondered if it was because:
- You are insecure and need to make people feel like you are more powerful than they are?
- You were taught, or believe this is the way a big executive is supposed to treat others to gain their respect?
- You are self-involved to the extent that you don’t even realize that you are so thoroughly dismissing people?
- You actually believe that you are a superior life form?
The leaders that inspired me the most were the ones who did not get caught up in this personal power. They were the ones who would sit across the table and make people feel like equals. We are both people, and have different roles in this business, but we share the business challenges as people. Let’s talk.
The problem with treating role power as personal power is this: Since the personal power is not actually real, you need to spend an awful lot of time and energy reinforcing it and protecting it. That is time taken away from effectively leading. Not to mention it destroys trust and loyalty, which also degrades real power.
If you take the higher road of sharing power, and building a powerful team beneath you, you actually gain real power. Because you end up with an army of people who will support you and do great things to make the business succeed. Isn’t that more, actual, useful power than trying to claim false power for yourself? I’d rather have 1,000 peoples’ positive power, genuine support, and forward momentum in my business, than to try to build my own power by keeping 1,000 people down. It is exhausting to even think about!
Here are some practical ways that I have seen the difference play out.
1. Human vs. boss
If the thinking starts with "We're both humans," vs. "I'm the boss and you are the worker," you create an environment where everyone feels acknowledged. If you flaunt special privileges that only the boss gets, everyone else feels resentful and will not bring their best to the business. You're shooting yourself in the foot on running an effective organization.
Spending personal time with people in the trenches, on the assembly line, on the help desk, or literally in the trenches (if your business digs trenches), shows that you understand and value all the jobs in your organization and you are not “above it all.” It builds tremendous loyalty because when you ask someone to do work for you, they know you appreciate what you are asking them to do. It is hard to over-estimate the value of this as a leader.
2. Curious vs. right
People protecting their power need to be right and to stay right. So it’s not just that they are not good listeners, they actually need to not listen.
Leaders who are genuinely curious invite new ideas and are always learning. They learn what is really going on in their organization and therefore know what is causing inefficiency, frustration, and suffering--so they can fix it.
The “right” executive doesn’t want to hear it. They are right often enough that they can succeed to a certain extent, but they miss the opportunity to recognize breakthroughs that others might contribute.
3. Promote others vs. inflate yourself
Leaders who take credit for their organizations’ work are again, trying to hold on to false personal power. Leaders who promote and elevate their stars build a much higher value organization.
This is well said in the book Five Frogs on a Log  by Mark Feldman and Michael Spratt: “A players hire A+ players, B players hire C players, and C players hire idiots.” Insecure leaders who hire weak players so no one threatens them, make the whole organization weaker. A players (leaders who share power) hire people better than themselves and give them support to excel. Then they give them recognition and help them move up. The whole organization gets stronger.
4. Open vs. secret
People protecting personal power are secretive. They believe that if they know more than everyone else, they will remain more important.
Real leaders communicate a lot. They make it a point to share as much information as possible with everybody.
They see additional power in having a well-informed team that can contribute more because they know more.
Effective leaders win people over by building an open environment of trust and respect. They create meaning for people so they can feel proud of their work. They offer personal recognition. They go out of their way to make the work matter to people the people doing it.
I was very fortunate early in my career to meet a mentor who showed me that you could be a very successful business leader by respecting people and sharing power.
There are many examples of executives that go the other way. They hoard power and treat people like crap. I might have believed that was necessary without a good role model.
You can certainly succeed as a power hungry asshole (there are plenty of examples!), but please know, it’s not a requirement. Building a strong team is a much more reliable approach to achieving success--and it gives you more real power in the end.
--Patty Azzarello is an advisor to CEOs and the author of Rise: 3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, and Liking Your Life . Follow her @pattyazzarello .
[Image: Flickr user Paige ]