Real Leaders? They Don’t Get Caught Up in Their Own Personal Power

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Aug 22, 2014

People often ask me if it was hard for me to go from running really large organizations to having my own (implied — “much smaller”) company.

This was never an issue for me because I always maintained a psychological distance between the power of my role, (managing a $1 billion plus global business, multi-hundred million dollar budget, and thousands of people) and my own personal power.

I took responsibility for the power of the large role very seriously, but I never pretended that I personally owned that power.

So when I stepped out of a huge business into a small business, it was not difficult for me, because I was still the same me.

But I often see executives who claim this big role power for their own — I refer to this as “Imagined Power.”

Imagined-Power people

I am thinking of one woman in particular who exemplified this behavior. She was a C-Level direct report to the CEO at a Fortune 50 company.

She was meeting me and my peers, who were at the time C-Level direct reports to the CEO of a Fortune 5000 company. Her dismissive demeanor made it immediately clear that she saw us as way below her on the food chain.

I remember thinking when I met her: “Wow you are trying so very hard to make sure you come across as a big, scary executive. That must be exhausting!”

I wondered — is this because:

  1. You are insecure and have a need to make people feel like you are more powerful than they are?
  2. You were taught, or simply believe, that this is the way a big executive is supposed to treat others?
  3. You are so self-involved that you don’t even realize that you are so thoroughly dismissing people?
  4. You actually believe that you are a superior life form?

I never know which of these is at play when I meet one of these executives. But I always feel that they are confusing the power of their role, with their own power.

Real-power people and respect

The leaders that inspired me the most were the ones that did not get caught up in personal power. They were the ones who built true business power by engaging and respecting employees at all levels.

They were the ones who even though they far above me organizationally, would sit across the table and talk to me as an equal. They’d say things like, “This is a tough business we are in! What are you seeing out there? What do you think I should do?

They were interested. They were open. They were always learning.

The problem with treating role power as personal power, is that since that grand-scale personal power is not actually real, you need to spend an awful lot of time and energy manufacturing the facade, and then protecting it.

That is time taken away from effectively leading and doing stuff. Not to mention it does nothing to build any trust and loyalty. To the the contrary, it builds fear and resentment.

Real business power

If you take the other road of acknowledging you have a big responsibility — because you are in a powerful role — but you share power and respect with others, you will build a loyal and powerful team to support you. So you actually gain real power in your business — much bigger power than you can create if you try to own the power yourself.

You end up with an army of people who will do great things to make the business succeed. They have your back because you are sharing the power. People like that.

I’d rather have a thousand peoples’ worth of positive power, genuine support, and forward momentum in my business, than to try to build my own power by keeping a thousand people down. It is exhausting to even think about! I choose the road of helping people thrive.

Here are some practical ways that I have seen the difference play out.

1. Human vs. Boss

If the thinking starts with we are both humans vs. I am the boss and you are the worker, you create an environment where everyone feels acknowledged.

If you flaunt special privileges that only the boss gets, everyone else feels resentful and will not bring their best to the business.

If you bother to spend personal time with people in the trenches, on the assembly line, on the help desk, or literally in the trenches (if your business digs trenches), you show that you understand and value all the jobs in your organization and you are not “above it all.”

It builds tremendous loyalty because when you ask someone to do work for you, they know you appreciate what you are asking them to do. It is hard to over-estimate the value of this as a leader.

2. Curious vs. Right

People protecting their power need to be right and to stay right. So it’s not just that they are not good listeners, they actually need to not listen — because what they hear might threaten their power facade.

Leaders who are genuinely curious invite new ideas and are always learning. They learn what is really going on in their organization and therefore know what is causing inefficiency, frustration and suffering — so they can fix it.

The Always-Right executive doesn’t want to hear it. They are right often enough that they can succeed to a certain extent, but they miss the opportunity to recognize breakthroughs that others might contribute. And they never have a truly loyal team to help them when things get tough.

3. Promote others vs. Inflate yourself

Leaders who take personal credit for their organizations’ work are again, trying to hold on to false personal power. Leaders who promote and elevate their stars build a much higher value organization.

This is well said in the book Five Frogs on a Log by Mark Feldman and Michael Spratt: “A players hire A+ players, B players hire C players, and C players hire idiots.” Insecure leaders who hire weak players so no one threatens them, make the whole organization weaker.

“A” players (leaders who share power) hire people better than themselves and give them support to excel. Then they give them recognition and help them move up. The whole organization gets stronger.

4. Open vs. Secret

People protecting false personal power are very secretive. They believe that if they know more than everyone else, they will remain very important.

Real leaders communicate a lot. They make it a point to share as much information as possible with everybody.

They see additional power in having a well-informed team that can contribute more because they know more, a team who is motivated to contribute more because they feel respected.

5. Respect vs. Money

Another trait I have seen with leaders protecting their personal power is that they need to buy people off.

They pay people more money than they could make elsewhere, with a key requirement of the job a being:

Don’t question me, stay in your place, and make me look good. Build up my ego by being at my beck and call. I pay you a lot, I deserve your un-wavering and constant adoration.

Effective leaders win people over by building an environment of trust and respect. They create meaning for people so they can feel proud of their work. They offer personal recognition. They go out of their way to make the work matter to people the people doing it.

Your choice…

I was very fortunate early in my career to meet a mentor who showed me that you could be a very successful business leader by respecting people and sharing power.

There are many examples of executives that go the other way. They hoard power and treat people like crap. I might also have believed that was necessary without a good role model.

You can certainly succeed as a power-hungry asshole, but it’s not a requirement. I also believe that building a strong team is a much more reliable approach to achieving success, and it gives you more real power in the end.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: 3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, and Liking Your Life.

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