Seven sources of leadership power

The use of power to move others toward achievement is the central action of leadership, but Richard Searle suggests there are many different ways this power can be gained.

Leadership involves moving others, and moving others involves power. If leaders in business and society are to move groups of people towards achieving valuable common purposes, or move them to adapt in order to survive and thrive, where do they find the engine power to do that? Let me suggest seven sources of power for effective leaders.

Talk of power can stir controversy. Some traditional views of leadership have largely equated it with command and control. Many of us have had poor experiences of power and leadership – authoritarian parents, dictators or overbearing bosses.

Management writer Adam Kahane in his book Power and Love conceptualises it not as power over others, but rather power to lead others to achieve beneficial outcomes. Grand aspirations and good intentions are not enough if our leadership is ineffective. Skills are important but not enough if we are powerless. Where can we source the power to lead others in valuable ways towards beneficial ends?

The most obvious source of power for leaders is their formal authority and the second, less obvious source is their informal authority. Ron Heifetz in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers has written well about these two types of authority. Neither form of authority is the same as leadership, although lots of people confuse them.

In fact having authority and relying on authority, can be a substitute for leadership and render it less likely at times. But formal authority can also be a major asset for leadership and it confers all sorts of powers on 'the leader'. One advantage from formal authority is it gets you attention, which is the currency of leadership. It allows you to keep directing attention to the critical issues and to frame the adaptive challenges. It allows you to orchestrate internal conflicts in constructive ways. It gives you access to information and allows you to time the release of information. It allows you to pace the work of change and to modulate the levels of anxiety that arise from that. It allows you to shape the decision-making processes from highly directive to highly consensual.

Informal authority may be an even more valuable source of what is sometimes called 'soft power' for leadership. Here, people authorise you to lead them because of what you represent for them and the value that you provide. Credibility is the passport to this source of power, and is demonstrated through expertise and capability, and values and integrity. This power can also be accessed also by being of value to others by protecting them, maintaining harmony in the group, clarifying roles for people or by respecting the group’s prevailing norms and culture.

A third source of power is self-authorisation. On my senior leadership programs, this aspect of leadership is often the most revealing. Although it is pretty much impossible to exercise any effective leadership without informal authorisation from others, leaders can’t just sit around waiting for a pat on the shoulder. Sometimes they may need to exceed their formal authority temporarily if they are to get any traction. Sometimes leaders will only succeed if they go out on a limb and authorise themselves in the face of resistance, apathy or the lack of an immediate mandate from others. They trust themselves to win the backing of others not by bullying but convincing them.

Sometimes the leader herself generates apathy, resistance and ambivalence about a mandate – telling herself all the reasons why she is not the one to act, and why this is not her time to act and why it is far too risky. Those who can authorise themselves to lead in the face of their own disempowering identity and judgements are most powerful. Where does one go to find that strength? Each of us needs to find that quiet place inside ourselves where we can go when this sort of personal courage is called for. We will say more about this source a little later.

A fourth source of power is collective effort. Powerful leaders devote the time and energy to build connection, collaboration and teamwork in their organisations. They know that the whole can achieve much more than the sum of the parts – a team of champions will be outplayed by a champion team. There are lots of clichs about teamwork but it is a much lower priority in many workplaces than the rhetoric would suggest. The failure to attend to socialisation processes in organisations allows many disempowering norms and practices to prevail.

Senior managers on our leadership courses regularly confess astonishment when they discover the level of relationship, communication and common purpose which they have developed in a short time with a group of complete strangers. And they are amazed at how empowering this is and how much creativity it unleashes. Collaborative environments can even help us appreciate the extent of our own leadership capability. The other bonus for a leader in a collaborative environment is that the work and pressures of leadership itself can be distributed more evenly. There is nothing more powerful than a less burdened leader.

The fifth source of power for a leader is allies. The leadership myth of the heroic individual often just results in more martyrs. Solo leaders are too easily marginalised – especially when they are not yet the CEO (and even then). Effective leaders are strategic and diligent about building a network of allies. Politics is not always a dirty word in organisations. It can be a lot more honourable than gossip or backstabbing. Political power in institutions is real and it can be developed and used by leaders for good just as it can be used for egotistical reasons. Leaders who want to change things will constantly come up against powerful and systemic blockages. The individual leader is often powerless in the face of the resistance. This is where leaders need to be strategic and have their allies organised.

Talk of ego is a perfect introduction to mindfulness, the sixth source of power. It is often argued that strong egos provide the drive and thick skin to enable leaders to prevail in business and elsewhere. A healthy ego is not a bad thing, but being able to let go of the ego’s excessive neediness, reactivity, and urge to control everything, frees up power and energy for the real work of leadership. Mindfulness enables leaders to 'catch' the thousands of guises and ruses that their ego indulges in, and it will provide the moments of pause where responsibility can be taken and free choices made.

As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Art of Power, many of us chase external sources of power when the greatest source of power may be internal. Mindfulness, including meditation, can make this source of power available to us by helping leaders to access that calm and still place inside themselves to allow in courage, clarity of insight and intuition. Most of us have experienced influential leaders such as a teacher, boss or parent, who didn’t need to say or do much to move us because their very presence was powerful and empowering.

And the final source of power for leaders is so simple and effective it is almost embarrassing to mention. Leaders need to build muscle at leadership in the same way that anyone builds muscle. They need to practice, practice and practice!

Richard Searle runs the Leading for Strategic Success Program at Mt Eliza Executive Education. The program will run in May, August, September and October.