Power is something that every leader has, as a consequence of the position they hold in an organisation’s hierarchy. Used in the right ways, power has a hugely positive role to play in influencing employee behaviour and driving organisational success. However, it remains an area of leadership that is often beset by complex problems. For all that it offers leaders, power can be misunderstood, underestimated and grossly misused. In the latest CommsMasters blog, MD Heather Campbell delves deeper into this complex issue, and asks, just what is our problem with power?

Okay, I’m about to use a word that some of you find difficult to talk about, so I’ll apologise in advance to anyone with a delicate disposition. I’ll even whisper it – power. There, I’ve said it. Now that we’ve got the word out in the open, let’s talk about it. In this post, I set out five home truths about power to help us understand power on a deeper level. I also share advice for leaders about how to manage power positively.

Home truth 1: Power cannot be ignored

First and foremost, power cannot be ignored. It exists in every relationship. From the animal kingdom to the human world, power infiltrates our personal relationships and our working lives. We are all more or less powerful in any given situation.

Home truth 2: We find it hard to talk about power

For the vast majority of leaders, power isn’t something that’s easy to talk about openly and directly. Indeed, the negative connotations surrounding power can incite powerful responses. In one situation, when I was discussing with a leadership team the power they held in their organisation, their response was very direct. They said: “There’s no place for power in this business. Power is about abuse.” Not surprisingly, such a view on power, doesn’t exactly make it dinner-party – or Boardroom table – subject matter

Home truth 3: Power has an image problem

In his best-selling book Start With Why, Simon Sinek argues that he’s not talking about leaders who rely on power, but about people who lead. [1] This implies that some leaders don’t rely on power. For me, that’s missing the point, because every leader holds power and relies on it (whether consciously or unconsciously). Ever been inspired to follow someone who’s powerless? What really matters is the type of power you’re relying on – to understand this, we have to value the benefits that power can bring and understand the different sources of power open to us as leaders.

Home truth 4: What matters most is how power is used

Power is neither good nor bad – it just exists. It’s the way we use it that turns power into a positive or negative force. Sadly, there are so many examples of leaders who use their power in negative ways, it can’t help but have a poor reputation. The leader who uses their position of authority to coerce others, the leader who uses power to reject or dismiss any alternative viewpoints, or the leader who outright bullies. These are all examples of how power is misused, misunderstood and underestimated. But power is a tremendous force for good as well. Used well, power unites differences, overcomes seemingly impossible barriers and inspires others to achieve more than they ever thought they could. Power builds resilience, confidence and belief.

Home truth 5: There are many different sources of power open to you

Power is not one dimensional. It comes from many sources. For example, there’s the formal power you get from your position as a leader. There is also reward power and coercive power. Additionally, you might be a leader who brings the power of expertise in your specific field. However, there is one unique source of power that every good leader needs to consciously and consistently build – the power of good, positive relationships with the people they lead. Ultimately, leadership is about people, and power is about people. Building good relationships brings these together in the most positive of ways.

So what can you do to make good use of the power that’s available to you? Here are five tips to help leaders understand more about the power they hold, and how it can be channelled in a positive way.

Five ways to use power positively

1. Manage your moods

Power amplifies a leader’s moods right across an organisation, both good and bad. You might think you’re just a bit grumpy, but the danger here is that the message “X is grumpy today” can be quickly transmitted and magnified across your organisation. It results in people avoiding you like the plague! What you might see as a slight change in mood often feels like a pendulum swing to the people around you. The next time you are having a bit of an off day, manage your emotions and responses to contain the impact of any grumpiness you’re feeling.

2. Be consistent

People appreciate consistency from their leaders because they know what is expected and how to behave. If leaders are happy-go-lucky one day, then negative and critical the next, or frequently shift goal posts with no explanation or warning, people freeze. They don’t know how to respond. Consistent leadership behaviour is important because it helps to build trust and certainty, so people can focus on their jobs rather than second-guessing what is coming next from their leader.

3. Communicate with care

I once ran a series of workshops across a senior leadership team of around 300 people. There were 12 workshops in total and the CEO attended every single one, behaving in a consistently positive way and communicating with consideration and care. Except for one occasion. A senior manager pushed hard about one particular issue. No matter how the CEO responded, the manager wasn’t happy. Eventually, the CEO spoke slightly sharply. It was a single moment amidst hours of positive conversation. You can guess what was remembered most by the participants afterwards! People are predisposed to focus on the negatives, even when they are greatly outweighed by positives. So communicate with consideration, and take conversations into a different space if you need to.

4. Spend time with people

There is a saying that “The Queen (of England) thinks the world smells like fresh paint.” Everywhere she visits is freshly cleaned and painted, so it’s all she can smell. [2] It’s the same for CEOs, directors and senior leaders – the company culture they believe exists, isn’t the culture that exists in reality. You’re getting a sanitised version of what people want you to hear. If you want to get as close as possible to what’s really happening, you have to spend time with people. One of the most respected and liked CEOs I ever worked with was renowned for being able to engage at grass-roots as well as at Board level. It’s so tough to make time to engage at every level in a way that is more than a cursory conversation. But it’s essential if you want to close the gap between you and the people you lead – and to really understand what’s happening in their world, not just in yours.

5. Listen. Even to the person who complains constantly.

People who are labelled as trouble-makers within organisations are sometimes just that. But sometimes, they are more than that. They are people who have the courage that’s necessary to push boundaries and “speak truth to power”. Look past the label, and listen to what is really being said. Remember too that if you shut someone down when they try to tell you something, they may never have the courage to speak up again.

[1] Simon Sinek, Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Portfolio Penguin, 2009.

[2] Dave Trott, ‘The Queen thinks the world smells like fresh paint’ Campaign Live, 24th November 2016. Available at: www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/queen-thinks-world-smells-fresh-paint/1416413.

How leaders can use their power wisely