Strategy & Leadership

Power and leadership

September 15, 2016

Power enables people to create order and get things done. It is a way of giving direction to the daily existence of oneself and others. Throughout the ages there have been leaders who abused their power. This will remain so in the future. This is because the forces summoned by power are too strong. You do not need to be a psychologist to know that power can be addictive. In addition to allowing us to serve others, power is also a means for fulfilling our own requirements at the expense of others. 

Fortunately, virtuous leaders have also always been with us throughout the ages. These are leaders who know how to use their power wisely. Many examples in classical literature refer to the integrity of those in power. So it is not the case that we have only had tools to make us better leaders since the development of modern psychology and the availability of manuals on leadership theories. 

All cultures and all times have brought forth leaders capable of exercising power with integrity. Our own age too has its wise leaders who are an example to those around them. Many of these we will not know because they do not appear on the television, nor in the newspapers and they are not among our Facebook friends or LinkedIn connections. But perhaps we can think of names from our own immediate environment. Names of the local school headmaster, the health care team leader or the bank’s local branch director. Not every leader holds a top position, nor does he find himself in the spotlight on a daily basis. 

I often ask leaders what power means to them. Frequently this turns out to be the first time they have discussed the topic. This is not so surprising. Power is rarely on the agenda as a study topic in academic circles, nor in management training courses and business school programmes, and there is even less chance of the subject being linked to a person’s actual functioning. 

The topic is also rarely discussed in executives’ boardrooms. If it is mentioned at all, then this is generally only when there are problems or tension that demand a solution or a strategy. Discussing the mutual balance of power is often taboo, though discussing interstaff relations and staff-management relations is easier. 

As early as in 600 B.C., Chinese philosopher Lao Tse said: ‘In order to retain power, one must refrain from demonstrating it.’ In fact, the same applies to talking about power. Mauk Mulder, one of the most prominent Dutch thinkers on the topic of power, discovered a number of mechanisms relating to exercising power. One of these is that members of a group who have power prefer to increase rather than decrease their distance from those who have less power. For them, an open discussion of power implies the unpleasant possibility that this distance will be reduced. After all, those with less power generally try to reduce power, and if the distance is great, this could lead to a discussion of the power-distance or reducing it in other ways. In other words: in order to retain power, it is better for those who have it to remain silent, and make sure that the subject of power does not get onto the agenda.

Oscar DavidOscar David is lecturer at the TIAS Senior Executive Program, a program for ambitious senior professionals. His book The Integrity of Power tries to increase insight into what power is and how it works, and to encourage a greater awareness of the significance of power in our life and work. 

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