Perspectives on leadership and power

Power, and how leaders behave, has huge impact on the life of employees, organisations and – as we have seen lately – human beings in general. Here are some of my perspectives.
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Power is the currency of organisational life, as professor Chris Mowles states it. Despite our aversion to candidly addressing it, power constitutes an inherent aspect of any relationship, shaping the conduct of each participant. In today’s blog post, I shall explore several perspectives on the subject of power.

The German sociologist Norbert Elias asserts that power is not an amulet possessed by some and denied to others. Instead, he perceives it as a ratio – a discrepancy in the strength of the various components in the power dynamic. As he elucidated in 1969: “The master has power over the slave, but the slave also has power over the master due to the services the slave provides for the master and how much the master depends on these services.” This power ratio is subject to various influences, and its equilibrium can shift. Formal power is one facet, but one’s perception of the strengths and capabilities of the counterpart also plays a pivotal role.

In the course of my master’s thesis work, I scrutinized various situations from my career wherein power was exerted over me, as well as instances where I wielded power. I gleaned that one possesses only the power that others are willing to confer. The power ratio is mutable if people decide to alter it.

Loyalty exerts a potent influence on power. When individuals are loyal to you, the power ratio tends to favor you. If loyalty shifts, the power dynamic will also undergo a transformation. In my career, I encountered situations where my change in loyalty toppled individuals of high status, notwithstanding their formal power, and instances where loyalty towards me fortified my ability to withstand intense pressure from someone wielding greater formal power.

Knowledge or information is another potent determinant of power. If you are privy to information that others lack, the power ratio swings in your favor. I once faced termination from a role as a line manager. Owing to loyalty, I had advance knowledge of this impending event. However, the individual with the formal authority to dismiss me was unaware of my awareness. I could not tilt the power ratio enough to avoid termination, but I could shift it sufficiently to seize the initiative. This allowed me to strategize for my successor, confident that she would capably lead my team, and to plan for a graceful exit and secure a new job prospect prior to my dismissal.

Individuals can only control you if you grant them that authority. Some employ aggression, while others employ tactics that invoke guilt. Simply making a resolute decision and establishing your boundaries will tip the power ratio in your favor, causing those attempting to exert control over you to lose their grip.

“If you are very strong you must also be very kind,” as Pippi Longstocking, a character from the universe created by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, aptly expresses. This advice, in many respects, represents the most prudent approach to maintaining a favorable power ratio. Earning the respect and loyalty of others is paramount, as in the long run, the power one wields is contingent on the willingness of others to bestow it.

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