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Power Is Not What You Think It Is

by David Brock on February 16th, 2016

We have a lot of ideas about power and influence.  Too often, they are wrong and misguided.  Perhaps driven by watching terrible movies or TV shows, bad stereotypes, or bad examples set by those perceived to be “in power.”

Non managers, new managers, and bad managers tend to have very naïve or bad views of power.  The latter group are probably clueless and never will care, so this is directed to the former two and others who want to think about it differently.

To be honest, I’ve learned this over a long time, with some painful experience.

Growing up, I had some fleeting experiences with what I thought was “Power,”  president of a school class, captain of a team, things where I was put in some sort of nominal leadership position.

When I moved into my first management job, I thought, “Wow, I’m the boss!”  With that were some vague ideas of power–at least over my team.

As I got moved to other roles, to Director, to Vice President, to Executive Vice President, CEO–each with the increased responsibility, for a few moments, thoughts of increased power might have flown through my mind.  It’s a very natural reaction.

  • I have 10 people to manage and am responsible for $50M in sales.
  • I have 100 people to manage and am responsible for $100’s of millions.
  • I have 1000’s of people in my organization and  lead a $2B organization.

The numbers of people, the dollar volume of sales, perhaps budgets, number of facilities, total assets—all contribute to ideas of power.

In reality when you “get there,” you suddenly realize where all the power really resides–it’s with every person in the organization.

It’s impossible to produce the outcomes for which we are responsible by ourselves.  As leaders, we are dependent on each individual performing at the highest levels, each achieving their goals, each one making a contribution.  Without that, it’s impossible to achieve our collective goals.

Yet too many managers and executives get this wrong.  They think the people are there to serve them.  To do their bidding.  They think they hold some sort of power over the individuals because they can “fire” someone or eliminate the job.  Some use their positional authority to try to get people to do things.

But jobs are easy to find.  Current data, in fact shows people (at least high performers) taking control over their careers, moving from job to job every 3 years.

In reality, we don’t “give people jobs” or “give them the privilege to continue to be employed.”  They manage their own careers and choose to work for an organization in which they can contribute, grow, and be recognized.

Power resides with the people doing the work.

If we are to be effective as leaders, then we must serve the people doing the work.  We must coach and develop them, we must remove roadblocks and help them perform at the highest levels.

We have to create a compelling vision, direction, and strategy, that challenges them, excites them, and makes them want to be a part of that achievement.  We have to create a culture, that encourages them to stay, grow and contribute.  We need to create exciting workplaces and be doing something they want to be part of.

Power is a strange thing.

Just when you think you have gotten it, you suddenly realize you probably never had it.

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  1. Part of the problem is a bad understanding of what a command/control hierarchy is.

    If people would study the US Army, they would find the “orders” that have to be obeyed have to be correctly structured, according to written formal rules of engagement.

    A superior cannot just make any order and expect it to be carried out.

  2. Good read Dave. It was going really well, and then you took it to a whole different level when you started talking about leadership.

    I’ve had a lot of managers in my career, some good, some mediocre, some horrid. I’ve also had a couple of leaders, individuals who inspired me. Power is fleeting, managing is temporary, leadership lasts. It seems to me that leadership is the holy grail and what we, as ‘managers’, should aspire to.

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