Yesterday I decided I was going to bite the bullet and start listening to podcasts and TedTalks while I walk the dog or clean up the kitchen on my breaks. Normally, I leave these times for my mind to go blank and relax. There’s just not enough time in the day to sit and read all the materials I need to for my online classes, or for my own intellectual curiosity. The podcasts I’ve been gravitating to lately are Michelle Obama and Brené Brown. Both are favorites. I noticed Brené had recently interviewed Joe Biden on leadership so I downloaded that one.
Brené opened the conversation with a discussion about her leadership research over the past 10 years and she spent about ten minutes giving us a foundation on what types of power leaders wield. It made me stop and pause while walking the dog when I heard the descriptions of power and totally became a conversation about leadership and power dynamics.
Here’s my take on leadership, the responsibility it carries, and how power is not a negative word when wielded responsibly.
Leadership and Power Go Hand in Hand
We learn about different forms of leadership and government when we are in school— authoritarian, dictatorships, socialism, democracies, etc. Depending on where you grew up, you may have experienced different types of leadership in your home within a society governed by a president, a dictator, or a supreme leader. Leaders are not just political but head companies, care for families, and coach athletic teams. They have many different styles, forms, and effectiveness.
Different Types of Power
I actually listened to this part of the UnLocking Us podcast twice to make sure I got this right. Brown used a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. to define how power is used during a speech he delivered in ’68 Memphis, TN. “Power is the ability to achieve purpose and affect change,” King said. In this definition, there is no judgment of whether power is good or bad or if using ‘power’ is positive or negative.
Is a form of power where the holder believes that power is finite, needs to be hoarded, and retained by any means. To do this, those in power instill fear, divide, isolate, marginalize, and dehumanize groups of people to destabilize and weaken any resistance. Decency or self-respect is absent or seen as being for “suckers” and definitely a sign of weakness. They value being right over truth and blame others for problems or challenges, the scapegoat mentality.
Power With or To or Within
Are forms of power where the holder understands that when shared it expands exponentially. The holders of power recognize their role is to serve others. This ability to empathize and connect allows the power holders to be transparent, accountable, and open to hearing different perspectives and voices. Rights and freedoms go hand in hand with the willingness to value cultural differences and know they enrich outcomes as well as all-important consensus. Those that share power are transformative leaders who are human-centric.
Brené was not discussing our current political race. Although I couldn’t fail to see the parallels. Because I know we all have our political opinions, I don’t need to go there, you can go to the polls to make your opinion heard. What I do want to discuss is how power in the workplace, the boardroom, or on the field can be used responsibly.
Down Side of Power Over Us
A dictator or authoritarian leader will say that their decisions are final and they like to rule with a firm grip. That governing or leading this way is much cleaner, smoother, and gets things done. It also breeds environments that in the long run can be detrimental to employees and the financial well-being of the organization.
Recently I interviewed someone that was very well-loved by their current manager. So much so that when they were promoted, they didn’t leave their old responsibilities behind because their manager couldn’t let go. The inability of this manager to appreciate, be a sponsor, and push their talented subordinate forward is an example of “power over.” There’s fear of losing talent, of letting go of power, and of keeping control through not letting go of authority. This is detrimental to the professional, the organization, and the leader in the long run because the person will probably have to leave the company to continue to progress in their career.
Power over us can also be used to divide and build unhealthy competition in the workplace. On the Zoom call or when we used to have team meetings in the conference room when an employee is talked over or their comment is ignored and then later repeated with a positive reception, this causes division and marginalizes members of any organization. The people in power or with privilege must recognize this and use their power to break the cycle of privilege or unconscious bias. If not, this lack of awareness or the destructive use of power will continue to perpetuate unhealthy environments where employees will disengage and there will be turnover. Both cost an organization on an institutional level and on a financial level.
Upside of Power With/To/Within
When power is wielded with an inclusive lens it takes more effort to hear all voices. By building an environment of trust, mutual respect, and a place that allows for shared power, there are also shared responsibilities. As individuals and as a group, we have a responsibility to make decisions and carve out road maps that are beneficial to the majority. Building consensus is not easy and when power is seen as a finite resource, it can become impossible.
By dividing people we focus on ourselves only and this prevents us from thinking about what’s important and necessary for the benefits of all. If we allow people to be heard, we can strengthen our workplaces/communities/groups with innovative ideas, see solutions from different perspectives, and learn from our mistakes. To move the spectrum of power from “Over” to “With” will require that those in the privileged groups recognize the benefits of strength we gain by sharing the power with the marginalized groups. If we think about this with scarcity and fear, we will stay divided and weaken our workplaces and our communities. Too much of anything can be bad for us is something I’ve heard, even good things. Let’s remember that power is neutral only humans have the ability to make it good or bad. There’s no “I” in the word “Team.”
What are your thoughts on power in leadership? Share your thoughts in the comments below.