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Leadership and the Responsible Use of Power

February 23, 2015
Shoe Steeping on Man The most effective leaders appear to exhibit a degree of versatility and flexibility that enables them to adapt their behavior to the changing and contradictory demands made on them. (The Leadership Handbook, Ralph Stogdill)

It’s one thing for a leader to recognize the styles she should use with her team to coincide with their unique needs and situations; it’s quite another for a leader to actually apply these styles simultaneously and appropriately. Take a moment to check out this post on situational leadership for additional information.

As well as being able to assess their leadership behavior and its impact on others, leaders must also carefully look at how they maintain and use power. To influence the behavior of others, a leader must first understand the effect that power has on leadership styles. It’s not a matter of how much power a leader has but rather how effectively a leader uses it. While leadership is about the process of influencing people, power can be described as a leader’s influence potential.

Those in positions of influence sometimes have difficulty distinguishing the right and wrong uses of power. In these situations, people view their managers as being control freaks who don’t wish to share power but who in the same breath talk about “empowering” their staff, yet in the end fail to align their words with their actions.

Obey The notion of control in these circumstances is really an illusion. Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal in their book Leading with Soul put it this way about sharing power: “It’s seductive because it gives the feeling of power. Something to hold on to. So it becomes addictive. It’s hard to give up even when it’s not working. You can’t start a journey until you let go of habits holding you back.”

In exercising power a leader actually uses two types: positional power and personal power. The former is viewed by some to be derived from a manager’s position (read perceived status) in the organization. Positional power flows down the organization in the form of increased responsibility and delegation. A manager who’s seen by senior management as not being a good leader may have some of her responsibilities removed.

Personal power, on the other hand, is the degree to which employees share in their leader’s vision. This loyalty creates a followership, which is where a leader’s personal power is generated. It’s also important to remember that a leader’s personal power can be removed easily by her followers should she betray the trust she has earned.

Remember this: Management is an appointment to position. Leadership must be earned.

In short, positional power comes from above, reflecting the degree to which a leader is able to reward and discipline her staff. Personal power, conversely, comes from below, founded upon the level of trust between a leader and her people.

Niccolò Machiavelli, in his 16th century treatise The Prince, posed the question: is it better for a leader to be feared or loved by his followers? One could answer that it’s desirable to be both feared and loved. Machiavelli believed, however, that because it’s difficult to unite them in one person, it’s better to be feared than loved. However, he noted that a leader should inspire fear in a manner that avoids hatred because he can sustain his leadership if feared by his followers but not if he’s hated.

Woman Holding Globe Applying this concept to organizations today means that leaders must learn how to distinguish between their roles as supervisor and friend. Leaders must often have to put aside a friendship to gain an employee’s respect in order to help his development and growth over the long-term.

The relationship between achieving personal power (having rejected the pursuit of positional power) and earning the respect of one’s team members, as well as peers, is in effect an intertwined process. Machiavelli’s premise is tantamount to employing positional power as the means to creating respect among one’s so-called followers. But this is an illusion, a house of cards of leadership by fiat.

A case in point is Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who while having achieved, however briefly, huge popularity among Russians, is at the time of writing this post imminently on his way down. Putin never earned the respect of Russians, but manipulated, intimidated and lied to them. Putin rules by fear.

Consider these words from Machiavelli, which President Putin may wish to have considered several years ago:
“A prince ought to live amongst his people in such a way that no unexpected circumstances, whether good or evil, shall make him change; because if the necessity for this comes in troubled times, you are too late for harsh measures; and mild ones will not help you, for they will be considered as forced from you, and no one will be under any obligation to you for them.”

Trust is the glue that holds organizations together. Without trust, an organization will never achieve its potential because its employees are not reaching their full effectiveness. The biggest challenge, therefore, that the individual who wants to become an effective leader faces is practicing transparency of actions and aligning these with one’s words.

This is where reciprocal trust and personal power reside, and where the journey to enrolling others in your vision begins.


Trust is something that happens within people only when it is created between people.

Chip R. Bell


Book CoverClick here to download my complimentary e-book Discover Your Inner Leader: Reflections to Inspire and Motivate.


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Jim-Max ShowshoeingTake a moment to meet Jim.

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