The Wholesome Use of Power

October 2, 2009

The wholesome use of power does not assure success in achieving objectives, but is in itself success.  Both the common purpose and our integrity are served when core values guide us. The exercise of power presumes the hope for success and the willingness to risk failure, but a values-centered use of power assures that even if goal-achievement failures occur, they will not be compounded by failures of human decency. (Chaleff, The Courageous Follower, p. 219)

The more I think, talk, and write about leadership, the more I am convinced that the concept of power is at the core of its practice.  More than anything else, your beliefs about power and authority differentiate your behavior and character as a leader. 

What are you willing to do to get power?  What are you willing to do to keep it?  Do you use your power to serve yourself and your inner circle, or do you use your power to serve others regardless of what they think of you? Do you treat those that have no power and authority differently than you treat those that do?

“A reward of the wholesome use of power is the opportunity to witness improvements in the lives of those we serve” (p. 219).

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  1. Bret, thoughtful questions. The very word, “Power” gets a negative rap. The secret, I believe, is for “powerful” leaders to stay grounded: on their values, on others, on where they came from.

    Staying intentionally connected through “wholesome”, healthy relationships with people who will tell you the truth is certainly one way to avoid tipping into the kind of power that is self serving. Do you have any other suggestions?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Mary Jo, I agree that the use of power is essential to leadership. It gets a bad rap, but power can be used for great good. The key as you point out is the purpose – to serve yourself or to serve something outside of yourself. I think it first requires an awareness of the awesome responsibility that comes with power as well as an awareness of the potential pitfalls. You should develop the habit of checking with yourself and others – not just your inner circle – to make sure you are using your power in a wholesome manner. Thanks for the thoughts! Bret

  2. Joseph Logan says:

    An article called “Memo from Machiavelli” by Dan Julius takes up some of your (very thoughtful) questions. I have noticed in my teaching a thirst for more explicit discussion of power and politics. Thanks for opening up the topic.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Joseph, these are tough issues, so it is good that people want to talk about them. Last night in my MBA class, one of my students supported the idea that screaming at employees could be “motivational”. when I asked if it was OK for the employee to scream back, suddenly it was not OK. It is very difficult to confront people that have an unhealthy power paradigm. Thanks! Bret

  3. James B. says:

    Take a look at the oaths of office and the shared code of ethics for various professions.

    With power comes the ability to act. The greater the power, the greater the ability to act.

    To constrain that power we, as a society, impose rules and norms on those we grant power to. We enforce these rules through ensuring that those with power have a concomitant responsibility to wield it in a certain way. This is in opposition to those who take power from us and thereby have no constraints, social or otherwise.

    Corruption occurs when the folks wielding the power neglect their responsibilities to the sources of it. This is why bribes, abuse and lies are seen so negatively when they are discovered in our leaders. They imply a disparity between the responsibilities of the office and the values of those occupying it.

    At the end of the day, the only real control over power anyone subject to it has are the values of those wielding that power. If the values are aligned with ours, then we can be reasonably confident that the power will be used in our favour. If they are in conflict, we’re kinda screwed.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Excellent thoughts, James. I think corruption also occurs when followers neglect their responsibility to hold leaders accountable. If as followers we would hold ourselves to higher standards I think it would have a profound impact on our leaders. Thanks!! Bret

    James B. Reply:

    Ah, but there’s the rub: how do you hold someone accountable over whom you have no coercive power? Guilt? Shame?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Courageous, respectful, and resolute challenge. Did not say it was easy, only essential. Thanks! Bret

    James B. Reply:

    So it’s guilt then. That works fine until the leader feels no sense of obligation to consider the subordinates’ opinion.

    Back to the responsibility and values thing then. If the leader doesn’t share your values, if they can’t be swayed by persuasion (which is at the core of what you’re trying to do with “courageous, respectful and resolute challenge”) and can’t be avoided, then what are you as a follower to do?

    Go home and hide?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I think your view of power to get the leader to respond is no better than the use of power you are responding to. Someone has to take the high ground. I have no control over someone’s response – only my own behavior and response. If you are looking for an excuse to go home and hide, you won’t find it here.