Using power effectively in leadership

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THE concepts of power and leadership will continue to be interconnected. While an individual can exert power without being a leader, an individual cannot be a leader without having power. One might ask, what is power? Some authorities have described power as “the potential to influence others”. Indeed this definition helps demystify power and puts into perspective the importance of using power in order to be an effective leader.

Power in organisational context

In organisational settings, leaders must exert power to achieve individual, team, and organisational goals. Leaders must be able to influence their followers to achieve greater performance; their superiors and peers to make important decisions; and stakeholders to ensure the vitality of the organisation. However, in some instances the temptation to abuse power is prevalent and very often power has been excessively applied with very negative impact on the recipients and entire organisation.

There is a notable correlation between how powerful a leader believes he or she is at work and that leader’s level in the organisation. Leaders at a higher organisational level tend to rate themselves as more powerful at work, while those in the lower organisational hierarchy tend to rate themselves as less powerful. It is important to understand how power is perceived within organisations. There is some tension around distribution of power in organisations. Some trends in organisations suggest that while power is not typically misused by top leaders, it does tend to be concentrated to a select few individuals.
Organisational structure and power

The flatter organisational structures and self-directed work teams that were first implemented through the empowerment movements of the 1980s and 1990s are becoming commonplace. This trend may increase the level of empowerment that employees experience in future years. There are organisations, which reward leaders who empower the people they lead, thereby encouraging overall employee empowerment; however, fewer organisations take the opportunity to teach leaders how to effectively use the power they possess. This leaves the definition of appropriate and effective use of power largely up to individual leaders.

Sources of Power

When most people think about power, their minds go immediately to the control that high-level leaders exert from their positions atop the organisational hierarchy. But power extends far beyond the formal authority that comes from a title. Leaders at all levels have access to power; often that power goes unrecognised or underutilised.
There are several bases of power that leaders can leverage. The power of position is the formal authority that derives from a person’s title or position in a group or an organisation whilst the power of charisma is the influence that is generated by a leader’s style or persona.

There is also power of relationships, which is the influence that leaders gain through their formal and informal networks both inside and outside of their organisations and the power of information, which is the control that is generated through the use of evidence deployed to make an argument.

The power of expertise is the influence that comes from developing and communicating specialised knowledge (or the perception of knowledge).

Then there is power of punishment, which is the ability to sanction individuals for failure to conform to standards or expectations whilst the power of reward is the ability to recognise or reward individuals for adhering to standards or expectations.

In Zimbabwe we are still to carry out a survey to identify the extent to which leaders currently leverage the various sources of power in the work place.

Putting power to use

The proliferation of technology has contributed to the development of vast and fast social and informational networks. The leaders of the future will need to know how to leverage such networks to advance their relationships as well as their procurement of real and useful data. Morden leadership need to leverage relationship power even more with all stakeholder groups in order to be perceived as more effective.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about power in general is that it is in the eyes of the beholder. You cannot just have power de facto unless there are people willing to perceive you as having power. The same holds true for expert power – it comes from actual expertise (such as an advanced degree or relevant experience) or the perception of expertise. Do not be shy about putting your credentials on your business cards or on your e-mail signature, or talking about your experience and expertise.

Many leaders mistakenly assume that leveraging reward power only means giving people more money. While this option sounds attractive, it is not always possible.

Instead, consider recognising and incentivising your team members in other ways.

Ask your team members what they would find rewarding. Some team members may find a group picnic or outing highly rewarding. Others may find such an event tedious or tiring. Time off or flexibility of hours might work for some employees; others may not even take notice. Whatever their incentive, do not make the mistake of assuming that one reward fits all.

While the power of punishment may conjure up terrible images, it can actually serve a very useful purpose. In today’s context of complex global organisations, many employees are frustrated by lack of accountability at all levels. When team members fail to live up to expectations, a good dose of corrective (but kind) feedback can work wonders – not only to get the job done, but also to establish more power for yourself.

Communicate and enforce your standards, but be sure to provide support along the way. Also, be explicit about consequences for behaviour or results that do not meet expectations – and follow though consistently.

Robert Mandeya is an executive leadership coach, trainer in human capital development and corporate education, a certified leadership and professional development practitioner and founder of the Institute of Leadership, Research and Development (LiRD). — robert@lird.co.zw/www.lird.co.zw.

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