You Are More Powerful Than You Think

Photo by Lukas from Pexels

The Leadership Journey: Power, Control and Domination.

If you do not understand the true meaning of power, then you could be undermining your success. Studies show that you could well be wrong about the concept of power. Answer these two questions and you will see:

  1. Do you think you are powerful? 
  2. If you had more power, would you use it well? 

Hold that thought and read on. Whether you are thinking correctly about power is largely dependent upon the answers to these two questions. 

You are likely to have answered no to the first question. To the second question you are likely to have answered yes. If so, then evidence suggests that you are probably wrong on both counts.

Do you think you are powerful?

Before we decide if we are actually powerful or not let’s just confirm what we are talking about. Power can be defined as:

“the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events”

This definition is important to remember. We may not feel powerful, but we all have the ability to influence others and our situation. The problem is we often think of power in terms of what we don’t have rather than what we do have. We think we could change things if we had a little more. A little more power, a little more money, a little more seniority at work.

The reality is that we actually just need to get better using what we already have. As Mother Teresa puts it:

“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

Mother Teresa

What would it be like to be powerful?

When you hear the word ‘leader’ what picture first comes to mind? 

Studies has shown that it is very likely you will imagine someone in control, telling people what to do. It is also likely that you are picturing a man rather than a woman (BaduraGrijalva).

If you are picturing a man, it is also likely that you picture someone who is dominating their situation (Bartol), coercing others through force – be that physical or psychological. This is due to the negative stereotypes of power in our culture. 

It is strange that these stereotypes are so pervasive, even today. We all know there is a problem with having too much power. As Baron Acton puts it: 

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…”

John Dalberg-Acton

The corrupting influence of power

But then we hit another problem. We would all like to think that we would not do the same, that we would not be corrupted by power. Unfortunately, the evidence is against us. 

Many famous studies have shown that we are all susceptible, no matter what our age, colour or creed. Jane Elliotdid an experiment in 1968 to show the dangers of race discrimination with her class, giving preferential treatment to children based on the colour of their eyes. Brown-eyed and blue-eyed children took in in turn to rule over their peers. Negative behaviours were quick to set in. Children started to discriminate against classmates who had been friends just moments before. 

In the equally famous university study, the Stanford Prison Experiment, students played either prison officers or prisoners. The experiment had to be abandoned after just six days. Those assigned as guards started to lose their empathy. The guards started to use force and subjected the assigned inmates to psychological torture. It was amazing how quickly intelligent, idealistic students lost their moral compass.

There are many more such experiments, as well as real life horror stories such as Abu Ghraib, that should serve as a warning to us all. None of us are immune from the potential abuses of power.

I can also speak to this from personal experience.

The Tiny Tyrant and My Part in His Downfall

leadership and power
The Author as a Cub Scout

Don’t be fooled by the smile, this is the face of a tiny tyrant. How do I know? Because it was me. This was me early on in my leadership journey and I did not make a good start, as we shall see.

Despite not being the ‘Great Man’ or born to leadership (see my previous post), my early leadership attempts were shaped by the notion of a leader who needs to control and dominate those around him. What I wanted was: 

“the ability to impress the will of the leader (me) on those led and induce obedience, respect, loyalty, and cooperation”

B V Moore

One of the first official leadership roles I was given was around the age of 10 when I was made a ‘Sixer’ in Cub Scouts. This meant I was the leader of six other (unfortunate) children aged 8-10. Much to my shame, I thought that my power should reside in respect for my position, backed up with the threat of force to keep my team in line. First point to note: I was a skinny child who struggled to stand up in a strong wind at that age, so this did not come naturally. 

One of my responsibilities was to organise my team and get them on parade in order to have our kit inspected at the beginning of an evening. To do this I would threaten to karate kick anyone who would step out of line. Second point to note: I didn’t know karate as much as I didn’t know how to lead. 

Cub Scouts have got it right

At this point, as I sit here in my embarrassment, let me make this public apology to all who had to suffer under my short and ineffective reign as a tiny tyrant. At that point I failed to uphold the law of the Cub Scout, a law that could serve us well in all walks of life:

“Cub Scouts always do their best, think of others before themselves. and do a good turn every day”

Scouting UK

What I was doing aged 10, was leveraging the tiny role I had, and what little physical advantage I could muster, to ensure compliance. This was mainly born out of my own weakness and fear. It was – and still is – a counterproductive way to lead. 

The Cub Scout motto holds a deeper truth. The appropriate use of whatever power we have is having a positive influence on others and the world.

Don’t be a control freak

Unfortunately, we can probably all bring to mind examples of adults who fit this tyrannical model. Do you know a manager who loves to throw their weight around, to exert their position of power and flex what little decision-making ability they have? How about an insecure team leader who threatens, bullies and coerces their subordinates, while also seeking the approval of those above them?

But coercion is generally a short-lived strategy. The more we seek to control the more we will struggle. As Princess Leia pointed out to the evil Tarkin in Star Wars: 

“The more you tighten your grip Tarkin, the more (star systems) will slip through your fingers”

Star Wars

Don’t try to control everything and everybody. It is counterproductive.

Creating an environment where people flourish

I learnt from my early experiences. I went on to be an officer in the Army and when they hear that many people expect me to be a leader who shouts at people and tells them what to do.

Leadership is influence (Maxwell) but our legacy as leaders depends as much on how we achieved things as what we achieve. Leadership is not about controlling and dominating – it is about questioning things and empowering others.

Success is not just about winning. It is just as much about how you achieve your goals. And if you want to have a team who can succeed, then as the Google team-work study showed, a manager needs to provide an environment of psychological safety above all else. In other words, a place where people are not afraid to experiment, take risks and occasionally make mistakes. 

You have power, use it, but use it well

So, if you are faced with a problem today, don’t immediately try to dominate the situation and enforce your solution. Try asking some questions. Understand the problem and other potential solutions first.

And if you need someone to do something for you, don’t just tell them to do it, think about how you can help them to achieve it. What information or resources can you provide to empower them?

Try this new approach to leadership and power. I think you will like it, and the people you work with, they definitely will.

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References

Badura, K L; Grijalva, E (2018) Gender and leadership emergence: A meta‐analysis and explanatory modelPersonnel Psychology; Vol 71(3), 335-367

Bartol, K. M. (1974) Male versus female leaders: The effect of leader need for dominance on follower satisfaction. Academy of Management Journal17(2), 225–233.

Bloom, S G (2005) Lesson of a Lifetime, Smithsonian Magazinehttps://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/lesson-of-a-lifetime-72754306/

Lucas, G (1977) Star Wars: A New Hope, 20th Century Fox

Maxwell, John C (1998) The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Nashville: Thomas Nelson

Moore, B V (1927) The May Conference on Leadership, Personnel Journal, 6, 124-128

Oxford Languages (2021) Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press: Oxford 

Rozovsky, J (2015) The Five Keys to a Successful Google Team, Re:Work

Scouts, https://www.scouts.org.uk

Zimbardo P G (1971) The Stanford Prison Experiment, Stanford University

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